February 14, 1995 in Nation/World

U.S. Heading For New Era Of Isolationism Many Lawmakers Believe Not Getting Involved Overseas Will Save Money, Energy

Jim Mann Los Angeles Times
 

The strongest currents of isolationist sentiment in half a century are washing across the country and the Congress, threatening to sweep away a 50-year tradition of activist U.S. foreign policy.

President Clinton’s inability to win congressional support for his first package of emergency aid to Mexico alarmed both the administration and foreign governments. It underscored the growing public mood for the United States to go it alone, avoiding ambitious diplomatic, military and economic involvement overseas.

The Mexican episode dashed earlier hopes both within the administration and overseas that the new congressional leadership - and particularly House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. - would be able to steer the Republican rank and file away from efforts to limit the United States’ role in the world.

Instead, spurning Gingrich’s original support for Clinton’s Mexican package, the new Republican representatives reflected populist sentiments back home. Their guiding spirit seemed to be not Gingrich but conservative Patrick J. Buchanan, who spearheaded the drive against the Mexican aid plan.

“My mother taught me to dance with the one that brung you, and the voters brung us here,” said Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, one of the new freshmen who strongly opposed the Mexico aid. Stockman, who unseated longtime House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks in November, warned against “sending out signals to the rest of the world that we’re going to be the banker.”

The new mood in Congress could affect a wave of other U.S. foreign policy issues, such as foreign aid and support for the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions. The next congressional test could come within days; a bill to restrict U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping operations may come to a vote on the House floor this week.

Scholars have to go back to the years immediately after the two world wars to find a congressional climate comparable to today’s.

“What happened on the Mexico package … suggests that in addition to the partisan changes in Congress (in November), there may well be changes that are a result of the end of the Cold War,” said Jeremy D. Rosner of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The new isolationism also reflects the tremendous turnover in personnel on Capitol Hill. More than half of the current members of the House first were elected in 1990 or later - that is, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even in the more stable Senate, 29 of the 100 members first were elected in 1990 or later.

So concerned is the Clinton administration that, according to top aides, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has decided to hold down his overseas travel for the next few months to concentrate on working with the new members of Congress.

Christopher said he has decided that the administration will have to make its case for internationalist foreign policies on Capitol Hill one member at a time. “The Sam Rayburn days are long behind us, the Lyndon Johnson days are long behind us, when a leader (in Congress) could produce votes,” he said.

This much is sure: Today’s congressional leaders cannot always marshal their troops on foreign policy issues.

Clinton, seeking votes for his original Mexican aid package, obtained the early support of both Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., as well as the Democratic leaders, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But in the end, their endorsements didn’t matter.

Some freshmen Republicans discounted Gingrich’s public stance in favor of Clinton’s Mexican package, insisting that it must not have reflected his true private beliefs.

“I think that if Newt were in my shoes, he’d be acting the same way,” Stockman of Texas said with a smile.

A Republican staff member said congressional freshmen also had been worried that a vote for the original Mexico package, which would have committed $40 billion in taxpayer money to guarantee private bank loans to Mexico, might have undercut the credibility of the party’s austere domestic initiatives.

He said members of Congress kept asking, “How can you ask me to vote for a balanced-budget amendment, cut welfare and also do this?”

The upshot is that while Democratic and Republican members of Congress have starkly different agendas, they tend to agree that solving the United States’ domestic problems is the top priority and that the nation should spend less money and energy on foreign policy.

That represents a significant historic change. From the 1930s through the 1950s, isolationist sentiments in the nation were anchored mostly in the Republican Party.

Later, after the Vietnam War, the Republicans tended to be the internationalists while many Democrats echoed George McGovern’s famous line, “Come home, America.”

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