America is less secure with an isolationist foreign policy

As the new year began and America continued to negotiate with Iran over its ill-begotten nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Americans were unaware that Iran targeted our forces in Baghdad and at the Al-Asad base in Iraq. Even though all U.S. combat forces have been removed from Iraq to comply with Iraqi law, Iran continues to use its proxy militias to force America to leave the Middle East altogether. 

Iran will continue to target Americans throughout the Middle East regardless of the nuclear negotiations. So should we listen to the isolationists and just pack and go home, or is the U.S. more secure having a footprint in troubled areas?

America again must confront its contradictory impulses in how to conduct our foreign affairs. Should the U.S. follow its leading Senate isolationists, such as Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulConservative pundit says YouTube blocked interview with Rand Paul These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 I'm furious about Democrats taking the blame — it's time to fight back MORE (R-Ky.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden faces Ukraine decision amid Russia aggression The Hill's Morning Report - US warns Kremlin, weighs more troops to Europe MORE (I-Vt.), who recommend staying out of the affairs of other nations? Or should America remain actively engaged in the world as the best way to defend our vital national security interests? 

ADVERTISEMENT

The American public’s isolationist impulse is particularly acute concerning the Middle East, especially after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. But our republic was created as a constitutional democracy that allows our leaders leeway to prioritize long-term national security interests even if the people disagree. The public must wait for two, four or six years to “run the rascals out of town,” although voters often end up approving of what were once unpopular choices.

What has history taught us about isolationism? Has raising the drawbridge to keep the world away benefited American interests, or has American leadership and active participation in the world been beneficial more times than not? Remember, American interests overseas are overwhelmingly economic, with a powerful military enforcing good behavior on the sea and in the air.

Part of the reason this discussion gets muddled is how it is framed. The binary black-and-white choice is anything but in a world of gray areas and complexity. Isolationists try to frame the debate as those who prioritize American nation-building at home versus warmongers looking to fix an unjust world with the blood of American soldiers. The reality is that every American wants to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way if possible. And the more significant issue that gets obscured when one leads with the sensationalism of the military argument is all of the other non-military choices America must make in dealing with the world.

The most damning historical case against isolationism was America’s stance before World War II. The fresh horror of World War I cast a long shadow over America’s ability to engage in Europe because isolationists claimed it had nothing to do with our interests, a shortsighted view to which history has not been kind. Because of the isolationist impulse, America was a second-rate military power not ready to confront the Nazis and Japan. Right up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans leaned toward isolationism, putting their collective heads in the sand despite the obvious dangers on the horizon.

The isolationist epithets of being called a neocon or liberal internationalist do a disservice to an honest discussion of American national security interests — especially if you believe America should defend its position as a unipolar superpower for our economic advantage and think that strength is the best course to avoid war. Contrary to the isolationist charge that those who want to remain internationally engaged have a war-first mentality, in truth, there are only limited circumstances requiring military intervention. It is the threat of using force that decreases its use.

ADVERTISEMENT

As Jed Babbin writes in the American Spectator, “America should only use military force when our vital national security interests are threatened. Our vital national security interests are those we must defend to protect our freedoms preserved by the Constitution. That means we must have the freedoms of the seas, the skies, space, and the cyber realm. It also means that like them or not, we are bound to defend our NATO allies and others, such as Japan and South Korea, if any of them are attacked.” Both conservatives and moderate Democrats “know that isolationism is a path to damaging or losing our national security.”  

Michael Gerson, a liberal interventionist, made the point in a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “U.S. isolation is bad policy, even if Americans say they want it.” He concluded: “The United States has problems that can’t be isolated, only confronted. And the longer it takes to realize it, the harder our tasks become.”  

Many in the Middle East, and around the world, perceive isolationism as a weakness that breeds vulnerability. Pulling up the drawbridge of international engagement undermines U.S. interests where we still have sway in dictating a course that serves those interests. Reacting to world events, instead of offering leadership, is a prescription for future disasters. 

Let’s engage and lead the world on our terms but with mutual respect. Leave a small military footprint on foreign lands to leverage our advantage, protect essential American industries essential for our security, and create balanced trade agreements that strengthen America economically. Whether we like it or not, America prospers economically by engaging the world on terms that do not leave us at a disadvantage.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.