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

So it raises the question — what are the anti-retreaters talking about?

First, arguments about retreat are not really about retreat — they are about policy differences.

Take for example, an opinion piece by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in which he outlines growing concern from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king “is convinced the US is unreliable” (this is a familiar synonym for retreat) reported Ignatius, who also notes this view is shared by four other traditional US allies in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

So what do these four countries have in common? They do not like diplomacy with Iran, US condemnation of the military coup in Egypt or the refusal to go all out to topple al-Assad. In short, they do not like the US pursuing its interests in a way that goes against their perceived interests, or perhaps, to put it more bluntly, these are nations that recoil at signs that the US will not fight their battles for them or allow them to continue to free-ride off US security guarantees. What looks like retreat to them is actually restraint.

Second, it is politics, stupid.

If there is one truism of US foreign policy it is that it is domestic politics by other means.

For example, when the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard complains that at a time when the US needs a leader who will “sound forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat” it is cursed to have a president who “has a piccolo that only calls retreat,” it is not providing an accurate description of US foreign policy — but that is hardly the point.

Rather, these are evocative smear words intended to portray Obama (though honestly it would be any Democratic president) as spineless and weak. After all, in the 1950s, Democrats were the party that lost China; in the 1970s, they stabbed the US in the back on Vietnam; in the 1980s, they were “blame America firsters”; in the 2000s, they were merely “French” in their approach to foreign affairs.

(Mental note: Send anyone who used this slur a book on the Algerian War.)

While the specific insults might change, the attack line is always the same. If in the process they allow the person making the criticism to cover themselves in the mantle of toughness and strength — without having to bear any of the consequences for their policy positions — well, that is kind of the idea.

Third, those who argue that the US is retreating from the global stage have a very clear sense of what US leadership looks like — the use of military force.

This is why the failure to bomb Syria has become such a cause celebre to the retreat crowd. Never mind that Obama fulfilled his policy goal of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons capability. “Diplomacy” is for wimps.

The failure to use force in Syrian not only left al-Assad unpunished, it emboldened other world leaders, or so the argument goes. So Russian troops had barely stepped foot in Crimea before Obama’s critics were blaming Putin’s actions on Obama’s Syria fecklessness.

Of course, even if Obama had turned Damascus into a car park, he would never have sent troops to Ukraine to reverse Putin’s aggression in Crimea. In other words, even if he did what the hawks wanted, it would not have convinced Putin to act differently in Crimea, a fact well understood by both Putin and Obama’s critics.

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