Israel in the Era of the New Isolationism
Maybe biblical Joseph’s cyclical dream of seven fat years followed by seven lean ones can be applied to America’s world politics. A “fat” cycle of successful American global engagement began with World War II and ended with 1991’s breakup of the Soviet Union. We’re now well into another “lean” cycle that seems to be mimicking characteristics of the Isolationism of America’s Great Depression diplomacy of the 1930s when there were “trade wars” ultimately leading to real wars.
The Old Isolationism was pervasive. In the early 1930s, even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was initially premised on the assumption that the US could go it alone in turbulent global waters and get along with “Herr Hitler.” The Neutrality Act of 1935 banned the US from aiding democracies against dictatorships like Franco’s Spain. Not until 1937, with “the rise of the dictators” becoming painfully apparent, did Washington begin to change course.
Not even then did the movement that came to be called America First get the message. With American hero Charles Lindbergh as spokesperson, America First desperately tried to keep America out of another world war, even if that meant German domination of Europe. It also smeared American Jews as warmongers. Only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor woke up most, but not all, America Firsters.
Today, a New Isolationism is insidiously at work, with both major parties complicit. The Trump administration spurns American allies from Canada to Great Britain who fought alongside the US in two world wars. The Democrats writhe in contradictions when it comes to confronting global terrorism. Not only for Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, but for Democratic presidential candidates from Beto O’Rourke to Bernie Sanders, Hamas and Iran’s Ayatollahs might as well not exist, because the only “bad guys” in the region are “racist” Israelis beating up on heroic Palestinian teenagers throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails. While the Trump Administration seeks a new Arab-Israeli alliance against terrorist-enabling Iran, the Democrats obstruct even this.
Or consider Hillary Clinton’s tweets on the recent terrorist outrages in New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Her “heart breaks” because of the former attack against “the Muslim community” by racists and Islamophobes. But she mourns the latter only as the misfortune of “Easter worshipers and travelers in Sri Lanka” perpetrated by “somebody somewhere,” to paraphrase Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on 9/11, with neither Islamic terrorists nor victimized Christianity explicitly named. Indeed, a 2017 tweet by Omar only recently surfaced condemning America’s humanitarian but ill-fated “Blackhawk Down” rescue mission in her native Somalia in 1993 for “thousands of Somalis killed” by US forces in a single day. Untrue.
Historians still debate why the Clinton Administration did not do more in the 1990s to prevent genocide in Rwanda. Perhaps one reason was that American politicians instinctively grasped they were entering an era when the US could do nothing right in the eyes of critics like Congresswoman Omar: if they intervened to do good as in Somalia, they were condemned; but if they did nothing in Rwanda, they were also condemned. No wonder that they usually chose to do nothing and avoid widespread criticism for incurring US casualties.
The US did intervene in Kosovo, but the predictable criticisms of the Clinton administration were not long in coming. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration had many reasons for taking on Saddam Hussein in 2003 beyond the search for WMDs, including a raft of UN resolutions. Yet Bush’s reputation is still in tatters because of criticism even from those who supported the Iraq War back then.
Despite a friendly administration in Washington, it’s understandable that Israeli voters reelected a prime minister who personifies “Israel First” in this new global era of every nation for itself.
Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans.