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Published: Monday, 2/6/2006

There's no 'new isolationism'

President Bush stretched the thin gruel of his State of the Union message into an unappetizing concoction by continuing to refer to lawmakers and others seeking to bring the American troops home from Iraq as isolationists.

Isolationism has always been part of the American political landscape, just as foreign adventurism has been. From the earliest days of the republic, there were partisan differences over whether France or England presented the greater threat to the security of the young republic.

Mr. Bush has gone on the road to underscore this message. He had not reached the fourth minute of his address when the first reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks appeared, along with mendacious references connecting them with Iraq.

Speaking later in Nashville, he noted differences among Americans about U.S. foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq, adding: "My worry is that people see that uncertainty and decide to adopt isolationist policies or protectionist policies."

True isolationism, much of it centered in the Midwest, was an extremely potent force in this country until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 united the American people behind national defense.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had difficulty before that day of infamy in getting even the most elementary steps through Congress toward enhancing national defense preparedness, and sometimes he found ways to bypass Congress, as, for example, when he traded 50 badly needed, though obsolescent, U.S. destroyers to Britain for convoy duty in return for leases for naval bases on British possessions in this hemisphere.

Not even the German sinking of a U.S. destroyer with the loss of 115 lives in October, 1941, moved this country to enter the war. A bill expanding the power to draft Americans passed the House by a single vote in August of that year.

A leader of the isolationists was American aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh, who urged this country to stay out of European wars, asserting: "I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England." Later, though, he served the military as a test pilot and consultant in the Pacific. In contrast to its pathetic retreat into isolationism after World War I, the United States in 1945 helped found the United Nations and never looked back.

This country has always been uncomfortable with overseas wars. Public opinion finally forced the government to walk away from Vietnam and may yet do the same with respect to the Iraq misadventure. Mr. Bush uses the term "isolationism" without any apparent understanding of that long tradition which persisted from the time of U.S. imperial ventures abroad in the late 19th century. By pursuing this theme, he seeks either to mislead himself or the public or both.



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