Michael Tomasky attacks non-existent “isolationism” with some curious modern examples:
But there’s another way to state the case against isolationism, which is not hypothetical and involves peering into episodes in our history when we did behave in a somewhat isolationist fashion and see what in fact happened. There aren’t many of these, at least in our modern history. There was George H.W. Bush’s inaction on Bosnia, which remains a black mark in our history. And from the same era there was our step back from involvement in Afghanistan at the end of that country’s bitter war with the Soviet Union.
Whatever one thinks of the early U.S. response to conflict in Bosnia or the wars in the former Yugoslavia overall during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, it makes no sense to refer to Bush’s handling of the conflicts in the Balkans as “somewhat isolationist.” The label doesn’t accurately describe any policy of the first Bush administration. It’s hard to know what a “somewhat isolationist” response to the dissolution of Yugoslavia would have looked like, but presumably it wouldn’t have included recognizing the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia or support for a U.N. arms embargo. The “black mark” Tomasky mentions is that the U.S. did not respond by taking military action immediately in response to the outbreak of war in Bosnia in the spring of 1992. The complaint about neglecting Afghanistan is even harder to fathom. What exactly was the U.S. supposed to do? If the U.S. shouldn’t “step back” from its role in supporting an insurgency after the occupying force withdraws, when should it? If “stepping back” from Afghanistan after 1989 constitutes an example of modern “isolationism,” the word obviously has no meaning.
The main problem with all of this is that there are no “isolationists” in modern America, non-interventionists don’t favor “isolation,” and none of the policies of any modern administration can be accurately described as “isolationist.” The label inevitably misinforms and misleads in several unfortunate ways. Reasonable, debatable arguments to keep the U.S. out of specific foreign conflicts are treated as the embodiment of a phenomenon that doesn’t really exist, and we are supposed to recoil from those arguments because they are misleadingly labeled with a pejorative name that none of the people being described accepts. Making the case against “isolation” is exceedingly easy, because no one is arguing the case for it. It is telling that Tomasky doesn’t address a single argument that any contemporary non-interventionists have made about anything. Perhaps that is because he hasn’t ever bothered to read any of their arguments, or perhaps it’s because it is easier to retreat into cliches about “retreating” from the world.
The strange thing here is that this isn’t the sort of argument that Tomasky should want to encourage. The “isolationist” slur and related bad arguments about “retreat” from the world have very often been deployed against liberals in connection with their opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. It will surely be used against them again the next time that they reasonably protest against the next unnecessary war, and at some point it will probably even be used against Tomasky when he ends up on the “wrong” side of some foreign policy debate in the future.