Isolationism Watch: The Ghost of Lawrence of Arabia Is Haunting Republicans…and Maybe Democrats Too


Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia should remind us that all of us, of all political stripes, are dealing with stereotypes that could throw our foreign policy way off course.
The prevailing Republican view is well-documented. O’Toole put it this way in his quixotic and messianic quest to found an independent Arab state:

“[The Arabs] want to gain their freedom. Freedom…I’m going to give it to them.”

And that, albeit in an exaggerated, literary way, pretty much sums up the attitude of the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress – with some important exceptions, as Steve has noted.
My hope over these past few years has been that Democrats and eventually Republicans would embrace a more enlightened view: that people in the Middle East do want freedom – and economic opportunity, and peace, and rights, and dignity – and the United States should work with them as a partner to help them achieve these goals.
This rationale, in my view, is the right justification for redeploying troops from Iraq. Such a step, coupled with international partnerships and continued nonmilitary assistance, can help bring about a political solution in Iraq, as well as progress for Iraq’s neigbors.
But I’m not entirely convinced that this is the prevailing attitude in the Democratic Party. I’m worried some Democrats, frustrated with the Iraqis and sensing their constituents’ impatience, are simply ready to say, “not my problem anymore” and take up the isolationist cause.
Consider this from Hillary Clinton in her interview with NYT:

“No one wants to sit by and see mass killing,” she added. “It’s going on every day! Thousands of people are dying every month in Iraq. Our presence there is not stopping it. And there is no potential opportunity I can imagine where it could. This is an Iraqi problem; we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves.” (my emphasis)

I’m also unsure about where Carl Levin – whom I generally hold in very high regard – is on this. On one hand, he said:

“We have got to force the Iraqis to take charge of their own country,” Mr. Levin said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. “We can’t save them from themselves.”

Then, however, he immediately added:

“It is a political solution. It is no longer a military solution.”

Clinton, Levin, and others repeating the “save them from themselves” talking point need to get their acts together. Saying “we can’t save the Iraqis from themselves” suggests that Iraqis, left to their own devices, will tear each other apart. It reinforces the chauvanistic stereotype that people in the Middle Eastneed steely autocrats to keep them in line and stop them from killing each other. And it leads to the conclusion that no matter what the U.S. does, it cannot affect positive change in Middle Eastern countries.
The exaggerated, literary summation of this attitude?

“So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people; a silly people; greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”

That’s O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence again, this time in a moment of exasperation. I don’t believe that this is where most Democrats are headed. Most of them know better. And I think those who are projecting this attitude probably know better too, but believe they can win cheap political points with constituents by playing to their frustrations.
But make no mistake – the underlying attitude of the “save them from themselves” talking point is chauvanist and isolationist. If people are repeating it for political reasons, as I suspect, they need to stop right now. These political games make for dangerously bad foreign policy.
— Scott Paul


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