Populism, Pacificism, and Isolationism (Part 3): The Future

This is the third article in a three-part series on populism, pacificism, and isolationism. The first article, “The Past,” can be found here. The second article, “The Present,” can be found here.

Philosophically, we are a constitutional republic composed of sovereign citizens with a servant government; its constitutionally enumerated and proscribed powers are delegated by the people; and the exercise of these powers requires the consent of the governed. Consequently, as a practical matter, the government must recognize that both domestic and foreign policies require the consent of the governed.

Ironically, the Baby Boom generation should be well acquainted with this fact. They came of age during the Vietnam War, where they saw—and many of them abetted—the erosion of popular support for that cause. From the beginning, covertly supplying military advisors and intelligence officers into the country through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a fraudulent sop to gin up public support for an escalation of America’s role in Vietnam, only served to commence and cement public skepticism and, ultimately, opposition to the continuation of the war. The enemy was correct that the Vietnam War would be decided in the streets of America—and they were not talking about terrorist attacks but rather anti-war protestors. The enemy’s prediction proved accurate. The war resulted in a defeat for the United States and a death sentence for a free South Vietnam.

In the wake of alienation and disillusionment of the public with America’s foreign policy, the War Powers Act was passed to ensure an administration could not conduct wars without the approval of the people’s other duly elected officials in Congress. As soon as it was signed into law, it became an almost dead letter law and was largely replaced by Congressional authorizations of force, which, though ostensibly short of a declaration of war, are in practice seemingly open-ended.

Importantly, the nation’s experience in Vietnam and, prior to that war, in Korea was to largely oppose the insertion of American military personnel in conflicts that were active kinetic theaters in the larger “Cold War” strategy. Unfortunately, when they came of age in the halls of government, the Baby Boom policymakers learned the wrong lessons. The War Powers Act was not to be honored but evaded; supporting proxies was preferred to sending U.S. troops; and the rationale for sending U.S. troops into harm’s way had to be believable—not factual. Especially after the “Cold War” was won and followed by the “War on Terror,” such rationales usually had three components: the justification for sending the troops into combat; the military mission to be accomplished; and the ultimate disposition of the nation upon which we wage war. In the instances of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rationale was a regime bent upon exporting terrorism to America; the military mission was regime change; and the ultimate disposition was the creation of model democracies opposed to terrorism and allied with the U.S.

In the almost quarter century that has passed since September 11, 2001, the failure of these enterprises has served to disillusion and alienate Americans and led to the ascent of each party’s pacifist-isolationist wings. Today, it is not the Iraqi government but the Biden administration attacking the murderous Iranian proxies in Iraq, and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan proved a debacle that saw the return of the very terrorist regime that was supposed to be deposed, the Taliban. In Iraq, what were “weapons of mass destruction” but a 21st-century Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? In Afghanistan, what was the eradication of the Taliban and the erection of a model democracy but a fool’s errand paid in American blood and treasure? In the American public, what was accomplished but alienation and disillusionment, and its accompanying rise in pacifism-isolationism?

Unlike past generations of policymakers, it is imperative for this crop of elected officials and national security personnel to learn the lessons of history, lest they be repeated with dire consequences for our vital strategic interests and, most importantly, for our fellow Americans in uniform.

Despite the failure to honor it, the three-pronged template for foreign policy—especially the use of military force—remains sound: the justification for sending the troops into combat, the military mission to be accomplished, and the ultimate disposition of the nation upon which we waged war. But this tripartite test must be adhered to honestly and factually.

The initial rationale must be self-evident to the American public. This does not mean it must be initially obvious. Yet, it cannot be based on conjecture and/or connivance to facilitate the administration’s questionable or unwarranted insertion of American troops into combat theaters.

The military mission must be clearly defined, commensurate with the danger posed by the enemy, and not open-ended. This must not necessitate a “deadline.” However, the public must agree the attainment of the military mission will be commensurate with the danger posed by the enemy and the sacrifice of American lives and billions of dollars.

So, too, must be the ultimate disposition of the nation upon which we wage war. This must be practical and concrete, not theoretical and abstract. To wit, post-Iran and Afghanistan, the creation of a “model democracy” (at least in the absence of an overwhelming unconditional surrender by the enemy) is no longer seen as a viable war goal for the ultimate disposition of an enemy nation.

In sum, then, even as the pacifist-isolationist wings of both parties rise, the most effective and honorable means to garner public support for foreign policy is to tell the truth—about the danger, the strategic objectives imperiled, the military objectives, and the ultimate resolution of the conflict for both our enemy and the United States.

A foundational foreign policy’s principles entail that an administration’s first priorities are to defend American citizens and secure our vital national interests.  This is not a recrudescence of the rightly loathed pacifism-isolationism of pre-World War II America.  Rather, it is the starting point for harmonizing the mutual strategic interests of America and her allies, who also make their determinations based upon their own perceived national interests. In this regard, an administration would be wise to elucidate the foreign policy paradigm in which we find ourselves—in a new Cold War with authoritarian enemies.

Such a foreign policy based upon the consent of the public must recognize that the way to preserve and promote America’s strategic interests is by pursuing “Peace through Strength.” As a practical people, most Americans would rather be “safe than sorry” and be prepared for the worst rather than hope for the best from barbarous nations that butcher and brutalize their own people. Not only must an administration’s principles and practices in foreign policy guard against diminishing American sovereignty for the surfeit laurels of sundry international organizations with dubious effectiveness. It must also prevent foolhardy bartering with barbarous rogue regimes bent upon the subjugation and eradication of free peoples and nations.

Further, an administration must not echo the claims that America is a racist, imperialist nation. Who wants to ally with such an evil country? Who wants to risk their lives defending it? (Given the current crisis in military recruitment, it appears we have an answer—and not a good one.) Most citizens believe, to greater and lesser degrees, that America is an exceptional nation, a force for moral good in the world, and, consequently, must be ever vigilant and prepared to defend herself because her free people’s very existence poses an existential threat to the world’s autocrats, tyrants, and terrorists. Why? Because Americans inspire the world with what a free people can achieve.

Honestly fulfilling the tripartite test and its concomitant principles will produce a practical foreign policy appealing to a practical people and secure the popular support to ensure this foreign policy prevails and endures. If not, the rising support in both parties for pacifism-isolationism will carry the day and debilitate our nation’s ability to defend its vital national interests. Charitably, we can assume the pacifists-isolationists are motivated by a desire to preserve human life and improve it here at home. Yet, by making it more difficult for America to protect and project its critical strategic interests and, first and foremost, defend its citizens, the pacifists-isolationists will accomplish neither of their goals.

But the ultimate fault will not be theirs. It will be upon the “best and brightest” elected officials and policy makers who, through duplicity and/or incompetence, refused to give the pacifist-isolationist movement—and every citizen—a practical foreign policy honoring the wisdom and wishes of the American people.

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 14: An American flag flies during a college football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and Cincinnati Bearcats on October 14, 2023 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)