Tue, Nov 11, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Despite what the critics say, the US is not retreating

Naysayers allege that US influence is waning, citing inaction on Syria and Ukraine as proof that its foreign policy has been reduced to watching the ‘bad guys’ do what they like

By Michael Cohen  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

A new word, it seems, has come to the fore to describe US foreign policy in the age of US President Barack Obama — retreat.

The signs of alleged US fecklessness are everywhere — withdrawal from Afghanistan, which followed the ignominious departure from Iraq; negotiations with the mullahs in Iran rather than bombs over Teheran; an aimless and hollow pivot to Asia that is failing to deter a rising China; a newly assertive Russia seizing territory without consequence; cuts in defense spending while al-Qaeda franchises pop up across the Middle East; and perhaps the worst of all sins, the failure to stop the bloodletting in Syria.

It is a policy that historian Niall Ferguson calls “one of the great fiascos of post-World War II American foreign policy.”

(Mental note: Send Ferguson a book about the Vietnam War.)

The charge is not just being hurled in Washington.

“I travel all around the world, and I hear unanimously that the United States is withdrawing and that the United States’ influence is on the wane, and that bad things are going to happen and they are happening,” Republican Senator John McCain has said.

The charge of retreat is a potent one. It is also a complete fantasy.

Those who argue that the US is retreating from the world stage do not understand the limits of US power, do not understand how the world works and, truth be told, do not appear to understand the meaning of the word “retreat.”

The last point is a good place to start because from a merely objective standpoint tricky things called “facts” belie the notion of US disengagement.

For example, a nation in retreat might forsake its alliance commitments, reduce its presence in international organizations and cede ground to rising powers. The US is doing none of these things.

No military alliances are being shed, no international organizations abandoned and while the US is working to reduce its presence in one locale (the Middle East), it is slowly and methodically ramping it up in another (Asia). In the process, the US is challenging the rise of China and some might argue putting itself on a crash course toward conflict with Beijing.

In the Middle East, the US diplomatic presence has rarely been greater. US Secretary of State John Kerry has single-handedly propelled negotiations to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US and its international allies reached a deal with Iran to chill its nuclear ambitions and the US is now deeply engaged in talks toward a final agreement with Tehran, much of which was made possible by international sanctions pushed by the US. In January, the US helped convene talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the Syrian civil war. This came only months after the threat of US military force against Damascus convinced the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon its chemical weapons program.

In both the Far East and Europe, the Obama administration is pushing ambitious trade initiatives. On Russia, the US has been leading the way in trying to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea. Drones continue to fly in Yemen and elsewhere. All of these big examples leave out the many small ways in which the US is promoting its foreign policy agenda in countries around the world.

Now one can argue that some of these efforts will not succeed or are ill-conceived — Kerry’s peace efforts appear to be on life support and trade talks are going nowhere in the US Congress — but their mere existence is a crushing rejoinder to the idea of retreat.

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