ONLINE ONLY: Barack Obama, Isolationist

Barack Obama sounds troublingly like an “America Firster”

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In his 2004 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry declared that, “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.” More depressing than the delivery of this avowedly isolationist line itself was the applause it received. The expression of such sentiment marked a low point in the history of the Democratic Party, whose leaders defeated Nazism, fought communist attempts to subvert democracy around the world, and generally stood for the spread of liberty abroad.

If the Democrats learned a lesson from their last presidential election defeat, however, it’s that they were not isolationist enough. In a little noticed remark earlier last month, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama expressed exactly the same sentiment as Kerry four years ago, using almost exactly the same language. Outlining his economic agenda in a speech at Raleigh, North Carolina, Obama stated that “Instead of spending $12 billion a month to rebuild Iraq, I think it’s time we invested in our roads and schools and bridges and started to rebuild America.”

It would have been one thing had Obama assailed the cost of maintaining America’s military presence in Iraq. After all, he has hardly made a secret of his opposition to the war, and has criticized nearly every aspect of its execution up to and including the successful surge in forces and counterinsurgency plan executed so masterfully by General David Petraeus. But Obama’s slight last month was not directed at the cost of stationing over 100,000 armed men in Iraq – an iteration of his oft-repeated line that there is “no military solution” to the conflict there – but specifically at reconstruction aid. That’s the money that goes to building schools, health clinics, government ministries and the like. In other words, Obama believes we should stop constructing the edifices (literal and figurative) of the sort of liberal society that was impossible under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Criticizing the continuation of an effort that he believes never should have started would at least have had the virtue of being vaguely principled, as opposed to a crude expression of isolationism.

Why stop at Iraq? There is no limit to Obama’s admonition. He happened to choose Iraq reconstruction aid as the target of his ire because anything associated with that poor country has become unpopular with the American electorate. Yet the underlying logic of Obama’s statement is that we shouldn’t spend money on projects overseas if that money could likewise be spent here at home. Why not go after the billions of dollars we spend to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa? Why not attack the programs we spend on democracy promotion in some of the world’s darkest tyrannies? Come to think of it, why is the United States offering so much aid to cyclone-ravaged Burma, when those dollars could be spent on flood relief in the Midwest?

With his call for spending money at home “instead” of abroad, Obama establishes a false choice, creating a dichotomy where none exists. Never mind what we owe a country whose government we overthrew, devoting funds to the rebuilding of a physically traumatized Iraq is not mutually exclusive from increasing domestic social spending, as Obama has proposed. Nor is there any indication that Iraq reconstruction aid is in any way responsible for America’s current economic hardships. More troubling is Obama’s lack of appreciation for the threat that failed states pose to international security. If the United States does not ensure a stable, moderately-friendly regime in Iraq before it leaves, then the deferral of our responsibility could eventually come back to haunt us, a la Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Obama apparently forgets that the party whose mantle he will carry into November was the party of Harry Truman, the president who initiated the Marshall Plan. That program rebuilt Europe after it was destroyed in the Second World War, costing the United States $13 billion to fund many of the same sorts of projects we’re financing in Iraq today. Back then there were people, as there are now, who said that the United States shouldn’t be spending so much money on foreigners, rebuilding a war-ravaged society and making life livable for them. They were called “isolationists” or “America Firsters.” Theirs is an ugly political tradition, hardly unique to America, today embodied by the likes of Pat Buchanan. Something tells me that Barack Obama would never want to be associated with this political faction, and for the right reasons. Why he sounds so similar to the Old Right on such a fundamental issue is something that ought to trouble his liberal internationalist supporters.

After 5 years of frustration in Iraq, it’s understandable that Americans would prove weary of overseas commitments. And given these widespread feelings, it’s equally understandable that Barack Obama would appeal to them. But the electoral benefit derived from these remarks does not excuse them, nor does it buttress the case, endlessly repeated, that the presumed Democratic presidential nominee will restore the world’s faith in America.