It’s been quite a piece of theater, watching Republicans, most of whom would normally be shouting from the rooftops for bombs over Damascus, insist that we must stay out of Syria. I wrote about this GOP hypocrisy Monday.

But now let us direct our gaze toward the non-hypocrites. At least, it is often said of the isolationists, they are operating according to principle. Fine. But it’s a morally bankrupt principle, and an idiotic one, and one that will only hasten the advent of the kind of darker and more dangerous world that most conservatives are constantly trying to terrify the rest of us about. It’s hard to call anything worse than neoconservatism, but if there is one foreign-policy impulse that just might be worse, it’s leave-us-alone isolationism.

The foreign-policy history of the Republican Party is a history of the battle between the nativist isolationists and the bellicose internationalists. I’ve always found it interesting that the GOP should encompass both frothing extremes, while the Democrats have tended to occupy the saner (not always so sane, admittedly) middle ground. Historically, I would argue, the GOP defaults toward isolationism, because that was the natural reflex of many of the party’s key constituent elements in the early 20th century (Southern and Midwestern agrarians, self-made capitalists).

It takes a cataclysmic and frightening event for the warmonger wing of the party to win the day. The Iron Curtain and the advent of the Cold War was one such effect. One can thus think of the GOP’s general hard-line posture during the Cold War as a break from the norm, albeit a very long one indeed. September 11 was another. But this interregnum lasted not 40 years, but 12; so now, a dozen years and two expensive and wearying wars later, the war caucus is losing again, and the party is reverting to its original isolationist roots.

Lord knows there are many reasons why this is a good thing. But the intra-GOP alternative is hardly more appealing. We can make the case two ways. The first, the more standard one, is the hypothetical application of isolationism to actual episodes in American history, most notably World War II. Forget our military involvement; this begins with lend-lease. If there had been more isolationist Republicans in Congress in 1940, we’d never have armed Britain, and there’s every chance Britain would have fallen to Hitler. From there, who knows.

But there’s another way to state the case against isolationism, which is not hypothetical and involves peering into episodes in our history when we did behave in a somewhat isolationist fashion and see what in fact happened. There aren’t many of these, at least in our modern history. There was George H.W. Bush’s inaction on Bosnia, which remains a black mark in our history. And from the same era there was our step back from involvement in Afghanistan at the end of that country’s bitter war with the Soviet Union.

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