In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush worked himself into a lather about the dangers of "retreating within our borders." His speech bulged with ominous references to ostensibly resurgent isolationists hankering to "tie our hands" and leave "an assaulted world to fend for itself." Turning inward, the president cautioned, would provide "false comfort" because isolationism inevitably "ends in danger and decline."
But who exactly are these isolationists eager to pull up the drawbridges? What party do they control? What influential journals of opinion do they publish? Who are their leaders? Which foundations bankroll this isolationist cause?
The president provided no such details, and for good reason: They do not exist. Indeed, in present-day American politics, isolationism does not exist. It is a fiction, a fabrication and a smear imported from another era.
Isolationism survives in contemporary American political discourse because it retains utility as a cheap device employed to impose discipline. Think of it as akin to red-baiting -- conjuring up bogus fears to enforce conformity in the realm of foreign policy. In that regard, the beleaguered Bush, his standing in public opinion polls tumbling, is by no means the first president to sound the alarm about supposed isolationists subverting American statecraft.
The problem is that scaremongering about nonexistent isolationists preempts a much-needed debate over the principles that ought to inform our behavior as a world power. Call that debate George Washington versus Woodrow Wilson.
After 9/11, Bush the born-again Christian became a born-again Wilsonian, embracing the American mission of spreading liberty around the world. In his State of the Union address, the president affirmed his commitment to that mission, vowing that his administration will "act boldly in freedom's cause" and "seek the end of tyranny in our world."
The Wilsonian project derives from two convictions: that history has an identifiable direction and purpose, and that providence calls upon Americans to fulfill that purpose, which is the triumph of liberty. On Tuesday, the president reaffirmed his adherence to those convictions, declaring, "we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed."
Responding to these calls from above, Wilsonians tend to neglect mundane details about feasibility. Wilson had no patience with the idea of limits, and neither do his disciples. Thus Bush asserts that there is nothing a righteous America acting in pursuit of a righteous cause cannot accomplish. One will search Bush's speech in vain for any doubts regarding American omnipotence.
It was Bush channeling Wilson that landed us in Iraq. Even today, many Americans agree with the president's view of the U.S. invasion as an act of liberation, although many others view the war as patently misguided and morally unjustifiable. What can hardly be denied is that it has exacted enormous, unsustainable costs. Put bluntly, we don't have enough soldiers, enough money or enough friends to persist in this crusade, much less to implement the Bush Doctrine elsewhere to bring freedom and democracy to the entire Mideast.
This is where the tradition of George Washington comes in. As even a glance at the first president's Farewell Address affirms, Washington was anything but an isolationist. He was instead the founding father of American realism, a school of thought based on a lively appreciation for the limits of power and for the fragility of the American experiment in republican government. Washington did not counsel his countrymen to turn away from the world but to approach it warily and without illusions, choosing "war or peace, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel."
The Wilsonian tradition, emphasizing universal values, is an authentic expression of the American purpose. So too is the tradition of Washington, emphasizing freedom of action. There is no easy way of reconciling these two views. Yet in the tension between them may lie our best hope of navigating safely through a perilous world.
Can America be America absent Wilsonian ideals? Perhaps not. But an America intoxicated with its self-assigned mission of salvation while disregarding prudential considerations will court exhaustion, both moral and material. Our present circumstances may not dictate a full retreat. But they do require a revived appreciation of what we can and cannot do. Contriving phony charges of isolationism to dodge tough, practical questions is not only dishonest, it is reckless and irresponsible.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 2, 2006.