Crisis of the contemporary Democratic Party: Global isolationism & American liberalism should never mix

Dem donkeyAs a progressive I must admit that I have been disappointed by the reaction of many of my fellow liberals to Russian aggression in Crimea. It is with great sadness I see the drift of many of my fellow liberal activists towards global isolationism and war weariness. This flies in the face of the historic legacy of the Democratic Party. As someone who strongly opposed and protested the Iraq War in the streets and also controversially called for American troops to leave Afghanistan in 2002 after the installation of the Karzai Government when I was working for the party (a view that put me on the extreme left-wing of the party at the time in a war Democrats saw for the next several years as a “good war”) I have established that I do not like war and prefer diplomacy. I have taken the same attitude towards Syria and Iran.

I am proud to be a Democrat, the party that stood up to the most dangerous despots of the 20th Century. Adolf Hitler, Tōjō Hideki, Kim Il Sung and Slobodan Milošević, all confronted and defeated by Democratic Presidents. If we had listened to many of the Republicans in those eras we would have stayed at home and worried about “our own business.” We abandoned our postwar responsibilities after World War I due to Republicans and weren’t able to help the British and French at the start of World II due to the Republicans.  France sued for peace in the face of a Nazi German invasion because conservatives had taken control of the government from socialists/liberals who were committed to fighting fascism. Many of those conservatives had a soft spot for fascism and blamed republican government for France’s problems.

Isolationism and retreat from global responsibilities of a great power was almost entirely a Republican/conservative affliction. Standing up abroad for democratic principles, human rights, and American values was almost entirely a Democratic principle.

Then Iraq, an unjust war of choice cooked up by largely by neo-conservatives who had once been Democrats under the same liberal pretenses we would previously use to go to war occurred. George W. Bush gave fluffy, feel-good, liberal rhetoric for the war. I did not buy it at the time but many of my fellow liberals and political friends did. The scars of the biggest strategic blunder in modern American history still mar the Democrats today.

Liberal Democrats have now turned reflexively anti-war thanks to Iraq. Unable to distinguish good wars that alleviate human suffering like what we did in Kosovo under Bill Clinton to wars of choice that create human suffering like the Iraq invasion and bungled occupation, it seems all military or foreign commitments are now suspect to large portions of the American left.

For years it was Republicans who complained about the war-making willingness of Democrats. As recently as 1996, GOP President nominee Bob Dole referred to “Democrat wars” as a derogatory term to go after President Clinton and remind isolationist Republicans in the heartland that the GOP was essentially a party that opposed or inherited long wars while the Democrats started them. Historically, Dole was right. But I was proud he was right, because we were the party that stood up for humanism throughout the world, while they were essentially the party of selfishness. 

A distinction exists between just wars and wars of choice. But today on the left this distinction has crumbled, again due to the actions of George W. Bush. A war weary public in general cannot make the distinction that is so important – Iraq, Afghanistan, etc are largely sideshows with no long-term strategic American value other than pride and vindication for 9/11. On the other hand, the majority of hotspots we find ourselves dealing with in the world currently have some degree manipulation by the Putin regime in Moscow. Most of these issues are not isolated anymore and it led directly to what is going on in Ukraine. Anyone who claims the Ukraine crisis is not in the US’ national and economic security interest is just flat out missing the long-developed narrative.

This is the most critical foreign policy crisis we’ve faced as a nation as a free people since the end of the Cold War, if not even longer. The Middle Eastern sideshows of the last decade need to be quickly put into context as we face this new grim reality. Future conflicts in the Middle East have to be weighed based on where Russia is in the matter. That is realpolitik for you as my colleague Justin Snyder feels Putin has been practicing. Let’s  get back to practicing that in this country.

One of my great fears about Putin and Russia the last few years was the continued stranglehold on energy and gas resources they have developed over Western Europe. Thanks to that control Putin has developed, Germany is loathe to act against him aggressively. This is precisely why I have said privately to many friends (who read this blog) I feel in many ways Putin’s Russia is MORE dangerous than the late Cold War Soviet Union.

As Democrats it is time we led again on foreign policy and making war to reinforce our values, not to conquer other lands. President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Power have each spoken eloquently about our values the last 48 hours. I am proud they are representing both our country and our party in this crisis.


  1. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    “This is the most critical foreign policy crisis we’ve faced as a nation as a free people since the end of the Cold War, if not even longer.”
    This seems a bit hysterical.


  2. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    And the idea that there has been a retreat into isolationism is absurd, belied by the plain facts of the Obama administration’s actions since it took office.
    War wariness would be correct term.


    1. I am speaking specifically of the attitude of Dem activists towards any military entanglement, not this administration.


  3. Think! · · Reply

    Nailed it! This issue is one of the reasons I am no longer a Democrat and now consider myself an independent. Democrats so weak on foreign-policy.

    This article needs to be distributed around. You’ve really redeemed yourself this week with these articles.


  4. You make it sound like it’s a forgone conclusion that the US should intervene, or better yet, that the US isn’t responsible for this somehow. The NED has spent million in the country to destabilize it and our ambassador has used dirty politics to push an agenda. The argument can be made the the NED is run by neo-cons and is often does the opposite of what Obama wants (ex. Syria) but this is a weak argument at best.

    The result of US meddling is that the far right has taken over the government in a coup and have put actual neo-Nazis in charge of high cabinet posts. Russia might be acting in a way that you don’t like but what do you expect? What if Russia did something like this in Mexico or Canada?

    It’s not isolationism in the anti-war left, it’s “stop-messing-around-with-other-countries”-ism.


  5. Russia exports to Europe (Germany, Italy, etc.) and that gas is an important commodity…therefore it appears reasonable that diplomacy wins here first.


  6. […] support impeachment if the President decides to intervene. In March, Kartik wrote about the growing crisis of supporting isolationism among progressives and how liberals were becoming more knee-jerk in their reactions to any foreign […]


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