February 1, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

State of the Union 2006: Against the Isolationist Impulse

Never let it be said that President George W. Bush walks away from a challenge. Reeling from plummeting poll numbers and facing an opposition party that smells political blood in the 2006 election waters, the President came out swinging in his State of the Union address.


Whether it was his ringing defense of a "terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America" (see how many pollsters use that phrase when polling on this controversial issue!), his unyielding defense of the war in Iraq, or his insistence that Congress include a "rational, humane guest worker program" in any immigration legislation it may approve this year, Bush confronted his critics in both parties and did so head on.


There was more than a little Harry Truman in his words. Increasingly, the most apt historical analog to the challenge Bush faces in waging the war against terrorism appears to be the early years of the Cold War. Then, President Truman and a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill resisted America's recurring isolationist impulse and opted instead for a policy of aggressive engagement designed to check (and ultimately reverse) the spread of Soviet Communism. The institutions that served us so well during the long and uneasy encounter with the Evil Empire-the Truman Doctrine of containment, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Marshall Plan, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)-were all created during the first five years of the post-World War II era. 


In the four years since the September 11th attacks, Bush has delivered many speeches outlining the principles and applications of the Bush Doctrine he has fashioned to defeat international terrorism. But unlike Truman, Bush has been forced to confront the determined opposition of an increasingly bitter opposition party. Obviously frustrated that his efforts to create the institutions and policies that will see us through this long war (the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, a revamped military and reorganized State Department, and more free trade agreements, for example) remain mired in the political fever swamps, Bush homed in on what he sees as the root cause of the current partisan differences.


To prevail in Congress, Bush believes he must overcome the American predisposition to "isolationism" and its first cousins "protectionism" and "retreat." In fact, he made four direct and several indirect references to the dangers the isolationist impulse poses to America in our current "long war" against terrorism.


He characterized 2006 as a "decisive year" that will require Congress and the President to make "choices that [will] determine both the future and character of our country." But a partisanship rooted in isolationism poses a grave threat.


"In a complex and challenging time," Bush began, "the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting, yet it ends in danger and decline." Specifically, he warned that the only way for the United States to protect its people, achieve peace, and control its destiny is to pursue unapologetically the "enemies of freedom" and lead the world economy with free market policies at home and free trade policies abroad.


Bush believes the isolationist impulse harms us in the following ways: 


  • Abandoning the overseas war against terrorism would place Americans at risk: "In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat."
  • The entire world would be at risk: "America rejects the false comfort of isolationism. We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed and move this world toward peace."
  • World suffering, and the conditions that breed terrorism, would worsen: "Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies; it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need."
  • Retreating on the domestic front would expose Americans to greater risks: "Our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home." Bush insists, for example, that his terrorist surveillance program, which has led to calls for his impeachment from leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, has already prevented terrorist attacks.

Bush left us with a warning, drawn no doubt from his study of how his predecessors handled similar challenges. The precedent of intense partisanship on matters of national and homeland security, he cautioned, bodes ill for his successors. "American leaders," he said, "from Roosevelt, to Truman, to Kennedy, to Reagan," rejected isolation and retreat because they knew that America is always more secure when freedom is on the march." 


"Our own generation," he concluded, "is in a long war against a determined enemy, a war that will be fought by presidents of both parties who will need steady bipartisan support from the Congress."


Michael Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies