Rising tide of US isolationism on display in House hearing on Syria

Rand Paul, a leading figure of the new isolationism who opposed a Senate committee resolution Wednesday authorizing the use of force, says the US has no vital security interests in Syria.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., left, joined by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., right, questions Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing on President Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, Tuesday. Paul is among those who are against such an intervention.

A lengthy and at times testy House committee hearing Tuesday on President Obama’s request for congressional authorization to use force in Syria revealed what pollsters have been noting in the country for several years: a rising isolationism that shuns a role for America as the world’s policeman.

As one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after the other related home-district opposition to any Syria involvement or brandished stacks of printed-out e-mails from constituents demanding a “no” vote on the use of force over Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons, prospects for Mr. Obama’s authorization remained up in the air at best.

The four-hour hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, demonstrated the depth of divisions on the Syria issue and over an authorization vote Obama had hoped to use as evidence of a united American will to act against any use of long-banned chemical weapons.

But the hearing also showcased the rise of a strain of isolationism among conservatives who in the past could have been expected to line up more easily behind the use of American power and the need for America to stand up to the world’s despots.

“They don’t want the United States to get involved in a civil war where there are no good guys,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina, referring to his constituents. Even a group of 150 eighth-graders Mr. Duncan said he spoke to before returning to Congress understands that the US has “no clear interests” in intervening in the Syria conflict.

“They get it,” he said.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R) of Florida vowed to oppose any military action against a country “that did not attack the United States,” and then asked the three administration officials seated before him, “Where does this stop?”

Even Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, who argued that by its vote Congress would either “stand up for human rights or put [us] on the dangerous path to isolation,” conceded that the most frequent question he got from constituents on the Syria issue was, “Why does America always have to be the world’s policeman?”

The House hearing took place as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted narrowly in support of a committee-crafted resolution authorizing the use of force. But the 10-to-7 vote reflected not just deep divisions over the administration’s request, but also qualms over a provision in the resolution calling for US military intervention to go beyond punitive strikes against the Assad regime and include measures that bolster Syria’s rebels.

Senate committee leaders insisted after the vote that in recognition of the considerable concerns of the American public their resolution was considerably narrower than what the White House proposed to Congress.

“None of us want the US mired down in another conflict, so the committee has significantly limited the president’s original authorization, while still providing for an appropriate use of force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the committee’s top Republican. “It prevents boots on the ground, limits the duration of any military action, and requires a progress report on the administration’s overall Syria policy,” he said.

Perhaps the most prominent rising face on the new isolationism is that of Sen. Rand Paul, (R) of Kentucky, who says the United States simply has no vital national security interests in Syria.

Senator Paul voted “no” in the Foreign Relations Committee vote – as did Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who like Paul is a potential 2016 presidential candidate and who may have been angling with his vote to draw some support from what polls show to be a growing number of anti-interventionist voters.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll Wednesday found that nearly 6 of 10 Americans oppose missile strikes against Syria. Another poll from the Pew Research Center, which has found rising isolationism among Americans in recent years, revealed similar levels of opposition to intervening against President Assad.

Many conservatives and libertarians associated with a “turning inward” reject the “isolationist” mantle, however – for themselves or for the American people. They argue, rather, that what Americans want is a focus on “vital American national security interests.”

“The American people are not isolationist, they want the US engaged in the world,” says Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute. “What they don’t want is for the US to be the first responder for every 911 call that comes in.”

But even if it’s not “isolationist,” Republicans may be “reverting” to what Mr. Preble says is “a more traditional line” in terms of foreign policy.  For a growing number of Republicans, he says, the high test for resorting to US military intervention overseas is the degree to which “vital national security interests” are at stake.  

Concerns about “isolationism” crept into administration officials’ comments before Congress. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, Secretary Kerry said the US and the world would face even graver challenges down the road if they did not stand up now to Assad.   

"This is not the time for armchair isolationism,” Kerry said. “This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”

But Kerry clearly felt the need in both houses of Congress to respond to concerns that the US could slip into deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war. On both Tuesday and Wednesday he repeatedly reassured members of Congress – and the American public – that what Obama is seeking in terms of military action is limited in scope and duration.

But when pressed to answer the question of why it’s America’s job to stand against the Assads of the world, Kerry answered with an expansive vision of America’s place in the world that, as eloquent as it may have been, may not have registered with a war-weary public increasingly dubious about foreign intervention.

Asked by Representative Yoho “why it’s always America out front?” Kerry evoked the “beaches in France” where American soldiers landed to defeat an earlier terrible tyrant (who used gas against millions of people, he said) and then the Arab Spring, where millions are fighting for the rights and values America stands for, he said.

“We are the indispensable nation,” Kerry said. “This is because of who we are and what we’ve achieved.”

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