Isolationism Not Likely to Surge

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

IS there a decided falloff of support for the US military presence in the Persian Gulf from, of all people, the conservatives - those who for years were hawks? Columnist Pat Buchanan, with impeccable conservative credentials, accepts the name, ``neo-isolationist'' and contends that ``the old cold warriors, Catholics, and others who saw Communism as an evil and a threat against our country will go back to our familiar point of view - let's tend to our own affairs.''

Another columnist with equally strong conservative credentials, William Safire, sees himself as a ``geopolitical conservative,'' backs the US involvement in the Gulf, and is hawkish about use of US military force.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor, concedes there is a debate of this nature going on. ``And there is no doubt,'' he told a breakfast group of reporters, ``that there is some shift in public opinion regarding priorities. That is undeniable. But I'm not sure that is the same as pre-World War II isolationism.

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``Then the choice was very sharply posed. I don't think the choice today is, as then, between internationalism and nationalism. There is some concern about our priorities - how much we are spending on what. The debate today is about priorities.''

I vividly remember the old-time isolationism. I lived in the Midwest, where this feeling was most strongly expressed. As the war clouds in Europe formed in the 1930s, my colleagues in university, and even my teachers, asserted, ``We have no business getting involved in foreign wars.'' The Chicago Tribune trumpeted this message, day after day.

That refrain ended with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But without this provocation, Roosevelt would have had great difficulty uniting the country in war against Hitler.

Before Pearl Harbor the isolationists claimed that East Coast ``financial interests'' were trying to drag the US into the war in Europe.

After World War II this same isolationist group became the anti-communist movement. Their anxieties turned to what was seen as an internal threat, one aimed at destroying the country from within. This ideological anticommunist position, from the outset, was melded with another point of view: opposition to ``big government'' and particularly to big government spending.

Are we today seeing a movement back to ``isolationism'' now that the ideological and nuclear threats from the Soviets appear to have ended? Brzezinski says there is such a movement, ``but not a fundamental one as we had years ago.'' Differences over how the US should use its military force in the Gulf - whether or not it should move into Kuwait without further provocation from Saddam Hussein - represent a ``different kind of debate than that of isolationism versus internationalism,'' he says. ``The real question is what are the best means of pursuing international involvement.''

Brzezinski conceded that if a shooting war in the Gulf came about ``hawks'' and ``doves'' might emerge in the United States, but in a ``different mix'' than during the Vietnam war.

If an isolationist movement is developing, it is difficult to find it in the polls. The American people seem to be behind the President and his response in the Mideast - though his overall approval rating has been sliding. Few Americans are saying it is time for the US to return to ``fortress America.''

Newt Gingrich, another Monitor breakfast guest, told us he saw no signs of isolationism developing among his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill. And he would be in a position to know.

As Brzezinski suggests, a debate may well ensue over US involvement in a shooting war in the Gulf, should that occur. That would be a much narrower argument, in which many people could become dissenters, falling into the dove or anti-war category. But that wouldn't make them ``neo-isolationists.''

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