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Behind Gulf Policy, U.S. Isolationism Lurks : Politics: George Bush is sounding a lot like Woodrow Wilson these days, and he might run into the same populist or ideological isolationism.

September 16, 1990|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — The nation saw a confident President Bush address Congress Tuesday night. "Iraq will not be permitted to annex Kuwait," the President said. "That's not a threat or a boast. That's just the way it's going to be."

Bush had good reason to feel confident. He has the support of Congress, the American people and the entire international community. There is a catch, however. The President has that support as long as he doesn't do anything. The consensus that the President has so carefully built is a consensus of principle. A consensus on policy is not yet in place.

A consensus of principle is no small thing, especially between the United States and the Soviet Union. After seven hours of talks in Helsinki last weekend, the two countries declared themselves "united in the belief that Iraq's aggression must not be tolerated."

But the consensus did not apply to any policy beyond the current naval blockade. If the United States uses force without clear Iraqi provocation, the consensus with the Soviet Union could be broken. As could the domestic U.S. consensus.

The President was invited to address a joint session of Congress last week precisely because members were worried about the domestic consensus. They insisted the President give the country a clear statement of his goals. Bush, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) complained, is better at "doing than explaining."

What Bush offered was a stirring call to principle--internationalist principle. Our purpose, the President said, is to "defend civilized values around the world," among them our willingness to "support the rule of law" and "stand up to aggression."

The President also said, "Vital economic interests are at risk." But the economic theme was secondary. The public is not comfortable asking U.S. troops to die for U.S. oil supplies--or other countries' oil supplies. Americans want to fight for a principle, not for a resource.

So Bush spoke of "a new world order struggling to be born . . . . A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak."

Bush's critics argue that, in the case of the Persian Gulf, our international interests are stronger than our national interests. The President agreed. He said, with some pride, "This is not . . . . the United States against Iraq. It is Iraq against the world." Why should America assume the world's burden? Because, Bush said, "There is no substitute for American leadership."

Bush sounded Wilsonian in his idealism. Conversely, President Woodrow Wilson sounded Bushlike when he defined America's World War I goals in a speech delivered to Congress on Jan. 8, 1918: "It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in, and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions (and) be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression . . . . The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program."

Wilson discovered, to his dismay, that there are limits to American idealism. Wilson wanted America to join the League of Nations. Americans wanted to stay out of other countries' affairs and "return to normalcy." The same question faces Bush: How much are Americans willing to sacrifice for principle?

Americans have always been torn between internationalist principles and isolationist impulses. Either save the world or stay out of it. In fact, there are two isolationist traditions in U.S. history--one ideological, one populist. Ideological isolationists opposed U.S. involvement in the world on principle. It was morally wrong.

Left-wing isolationists such as Sen. Gerald P. Nye (R-N.D.) maintained the United States had been drawn into war by a conspiracy of arms manufacturers ("merchants of death"). Right-wing isolationists such as Charles A. Lindbergh believed America was on the wrong side in world affairs; we sympathized with Britain and Russia against the fascists.

Left-wing isolationism died when the United States entered World War II on the anti-fascist side. Right-wing isolationism died when the United States switched sides after World War II. In the Cold War, the United States became the leader of the international right in the crusade against communism.

Today, ideological isolationism survives only as fringe movements. Left-wing isolationists like anti-Vietnam War activist and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark believe the United States is on the wrong side in world affairs. Right-wing isolationists like former White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan believe national interests should always take priority over international interests ("America First--and Second and Third" was the title of a recent Buchanan article).

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