The Orwellian Debate Over Isolationism
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Orwellian Debate Over Isolationism


Amazing, isn't it, how much of political discourse comes down to hanging an unflattering label on your opponents? After all, if people assume your opponent is a nasty so-and-so of one type or another, no one will listen to him. You win by default. This practice infuriated George Orwell, mainly, it seems, because it involved using words imprecisely. Name-calling debased and impoverished the English language, whereas restoring clarity and precision to the language was Orwell's lifelong quest.

Exhibit A: the term fascist. Orwell published a hilarious essay in the Tribune in 1944, showing that serious people had called every major political movement in English society fascist. Conservatives, socialists, godless commies, pro-war types, war resisters — all were fascists!

A term that describes everything describes nothing. From this Orwell concluded that the term had become "essentially meaningless." He returned to this point in his classic essay on "Politics and the English Language," with which I torment new students at the beginning of every term. Orwell concludes that "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Many different abstract words — "democracy" and so forth — likewise stand at risk of losing all meaning.

The great George would have a field day with the debate over whether to intervene in Syria. In some quarters it appears that opposing military action qualifies a skeptic as an "isolationist." This is clearly something not desirable in the dominant reading of U.S. diplomatic history.

Isolationism — or "isolationism, so called," in the words of University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall — ran rampant in interwar America, fueled by inordinate fears of a new world war. It neutered the League of Nations while delaying rearmament for the eventual showdown with the Axis. Lesson: Isolationism = Bad.

But were the isolationists really isolationist? America was no Hermit Kingdom like North Korea. It was no Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns, a country that secluded itself from the world for over two centuries until being pried open by Commodore Perry's black ships at gunpoint. Now that's isolation.

Isolationist politicians like Senator Arthur Vandenberg and Senator William Borah were comfortable with carrying on foreign commerce, and with maintaining diplomatic relations with foreign countries. At most they were selectively isolationist, imploring the United States to shun military alliances and other entanglements. McDougall maintains that "unilateralism" — retaining Washington's liberty of action rather than committing in advance to the use of force — is a more fitting term for the Vandenbergs and Borahs of the foreign-policy world.

So let's infuse some Orwellian perspective into the debate over Syria. If an opponent of intervention wants not just to forego punishing the Assad regime but to cancel all overseas ventures involving force, then fine. He may qualify as an isolationist to the limited extent that the interwar isolationists did. If not, it's time to find another term — even though it may not be as much fun as tarring those with whom you disagree.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 9, 2013 at 18:04

First time ever I agree with TDog. 

Russia & China are correct about Syria. The US should stay out. But that does not make me an isolationist. When it comes to governments that actually threaten the US – I think the US should be much more aggressive. But Syria and even Iran should not be on the list of nations that pose a national security threat to the United States.

Putin needs to school Obama on this one. And he is.   

September 9, 2013 at 13:53

When people think of neo cons, the first image they have is that of a mindless aggressive warmonger. 

Wandering Ronin
September 9, 2013 at 03:34

“We believe, therefore, that resolution is indebted to a special direction of the mind for its existence, a direction which belongs to a strong head rather than a brilliant one. In corroboration of this genealogy of resolution we may add that there have been many instances of men who have shown the greatest resolution in an inferior rank, and have lost it in a higher position. While, on the one hand, they are obliged to resolve, on the other they see the dangers of a wrong decision, and as they are surrounded with things new to them, their understanding loses its original force, and they become only the more timid the more they become aware of the danger of the irresolution into which they have fallen, and the more they have formerly been in the habit of acting on the spur of a moment.” Clausewitz, On War, On the Nature of War, The Genius of War

Wandering Ronin
September 9, 2013 at 02:54

There are three types of people: Those who see, those who see when shown and those who don’t see. ~DaVinci
The so called isolationists are short-sighted. They do not understand deterrence and have become deterrents. They cannot see beyond the battle or the broad side of it. Further they are minimalists in that they minimize the events of the lives lost these past few years. They must feel more comfortable with guilt. All are intertwined in the global world we live in to not admit this or recognize is delusional.

September 8, 2013 at 23:02

I find the term "neo-conservative" has also been ruined by overuse and misuse. 

September 8, 2013 at 13:40

I'm against an attack on Syria.  How does this go well for America?  Because, under a number of scenarios that I can imagine, it won't all be that easy.  In fact, I predict that an attack on Syria will lead to reinstating the draft.  This isn't about isolationism.  Be careful what you wish for.  Ask yourself if we are approaching this whole thing the right way.  And don't forget, once a fight gets started, the outcome is never assured.  

September 8, 2013 at 01:58

I think the term "rational" should apply to those who oppose an armed intervention in Syria.  The reasons for using force against Assad are many and most of them are highly emotional in nature, full of supposition and hysterical leaps of logic.  To wit, Obama's assertion that if we don't attack Assad, terrorists will use chemical weapons against us.  That's like saying if we don't punish China for intellecutal property theft, terrorists will steal our ideas.  The disconnect is an assertion based not upon reason, but upon some highly charged terms meant to elicit an emotional response in the listener.

Obama's current Syria policy is based upon a personal desire to save face.  He declared a red line, Assad allegedly overstepped it, and now Obama doesn't want to be made the fool.  But once again, personal pride is a highly emotional reason for doing anything and however one may rationalize said reason (ie, no one will take us seriously, terrorists will be emboldened, etc.), it will never be a truly rational decision.

We need to remove emotion from the equation and I believe the non-interventionists have. 

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