By Jacob Sullum
The lead story in today's The New York Times refers to Ron Paul's "non-interventionist foreign policy views," in contrast with the paper's usual description of his position as "isolationist," which is both pejorative and inaccurate. Isolationism suggests not merely a bias against the use of military force but a desire to avoid any engagement with the rest of the world, including trade, diplomacy, immigration, and cultural exchange. Paul has never been an isolationist in that sense.
An archive search shows this confusion is a longstanding problem at the Times. In a January 1984 story about the U.S. Senate race in Texas, for instance, reporter Wayne Kingsaid Paul's "foreign policy views are regarded [by whom?] as noninterventionist to isolationist," which suggests isolationism is an extreme version of noninterventionism, perhaps akin to pacifism. That does not describe Paul either, since he supports the use of military force when it is necessary for national defense (following thr 9/11 attacks, for example). Less than a week later, King more accurately called Paul "a noninterventionist in foreign policy." The Times continued to flip back and forth between the terms in reference to Paul during the next two decades:
In a September 1987 story about the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, Wallace Turner reported that Paul was "basically isolationist on foreign affairs."
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In an October 1988 story about Paul's L.P. campaign for president, Andrew Rosenthal reported that "Dr. Paul refuses to call himself an isolationist, but that is how many others see him."
In a January 2008 review of Pat Buchanan's book Day of Reckoning (titled "The Isolationist"), Chris Suellentrop called Paul "a foreign policy noninterventionist."
In a June 6, 2011 story, James Dao quoted John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, who called Paul and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) "military noninterventionists."
In an October 7, 2011, blog post, Richard Stevenson said Paul's "libertarian views line up with the neo-isolationist strain within the Tea Party."
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In an October 8 story, Helen Cooper and Ashley Parker said Paul, as compared to Jon Huntsman, represents "a more isolationist strain of thinking."
In an October 23 "news analysis," Sam Tanenhaus (editor of The New York Times Book Review) used isolationist and noninterventionist interchangeably, saying the skepticism reflected in Paul's warnings about an American empire and Republican resistance to the attack on Libya "recalls the isolationism of a bygone age."
In a November 5 blog post, Richard Oppel reported that Paul "espoused a noninterventionist foreign policy."
In a November 19 story, Trip Gabriel reported that Paul's ads "conveniently avoid his isolationist foreign policy."
A November 22 blog post about the Republican presidential debate in Washington (which is on Nexis but does not seem to be available on the New York Times site anymore) noted that "Mr. Paul calls his foreign policy position non-interventionist" but added, "To outsiders, it can sound isolationist."
In a December 15 story, Jeremy Peters referred to Paul's "noninterventionist foreign policy."
Two days later, Peters and Michael Barbaro reported that "Ron Paul's isolationist worldview evolved into a 'strong national defense' in the post-debate "spin room."
In a December 24 story, Katherine Seelye reported that Newt Gingrich "sharply criticized Mr. Paul for what he said were his isolationist views on foreign policy."
In a December 25 story, Jim Rutenberg and Serge Kovaleski said Paul's "noninterventionist" views help explain his appeal among disreputable right-wingers.
In a December 28 story, Jeff Zeleny and Michael Shear reported that Rick Santorum "urged Republicans to carefully study Mr. Paul's isolationist foreign policy views."
A unbylined December 31 summary of "Where the Republican Candidates Stand on Key Issues" referred matter-of-factly to Paul's "isolationism" and said "Mr. Paul's status among the front-runners in Iowa has set off a debate that has stirred historic isolationist strains in the party."
Putting all these references together, people who write for the Times are intermittently aware that Paul does not call himself an isolationist and that the term has negative connotations (hence Gingrich criticized Paul "for what he said were his isolationist views on foreign policy"). They also occasionally note that "others" or "outsiders" (such as New York Times reporters?) consider Paul an isolationist. Usually, however, the Times treats isolationist as a synonym for noninterventionist—not just in reference to Paul but also in describing elements of the Tea Party and the conservative movement generally.
I have not noticed such promiscuous use of isolationist in the paper's coverage of people on the left who take a relatively narrow view of national defense and believe the U.S. government too quickly resorts to military force. In any case, such use of the term is imprecise at best and hostile at worst. A good indicator of whether isolationist can be treated as a neutral adjective: Does any politician describe himself that way?