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

In the child-like worldview of those bemoaning retreat, every missed opportunity for the US to bomb or invade a country is a clear and unmistakable signal to the world’s bad guys that they can do whatever they want, and the US will not lift a finger to stop them.

Just as in 2008, after the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin demurred at invading Georgia for fear of upsetting fearsome and Brobdingnagian former US president George W. Bush. Oh wait.

Finally, those who argue against retreat are besotted by the myth of US omnipotence and the idea that when the US acts the world is transformed.

Take, for example, the hawkish editor of the Washington Post editorial page, Fred Hiatt. In an op-ed complaining about Obama’s flawed “global strategy,” he said: “When democratic uprisings stirred hope from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, some foreign-policy veterans ... urged Obama to seize the unexpected opportunity and help support historic change. Obama stayed aloof, and the moment passed.”

If only Obama seized the moment, the Middle East today would be defined by Jeffersonian democracy and region-wide respect for human rights. As Obama himself sagely commented about such nonsense: “I hear people suggesting that somehow, if we had just financed and armed the opposition [in Syria] earlier, that somehow [al-]Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition. It’s magical thinking.”

For 12 years, the US has maintained a troop presence in Afghanistan, fought a fearsome counterinsurgency, spent hundreds of billions of US dollars — and that nation’s leader wants the US to leave even as his desperately poor country remains mired in civil war and dysfunction.

If that US presence cannot stabilize Afghanistan with 100,000 troops — just as the US failed fully to stabilize Iraq — what would lead anyone to believe that the intangible concept of US non-aloofness in Egypt, Syria or elsewhere would transform those nations?

Indeed, at its core, the retreat argument is informed by the unshakeable belief that more US power, more US commitment and more leadership will always produce better outcomes. The irony is that so many of those bemoaning US retreat are the same people calling for war with Iraq a decade ago.

It is almost as if those who advocated a calamitous conflict that undermined US interests, took more than 4,000 American lives (and many more Iraqis) and cost trillions of dollars learned absolutely nothing from that experience.

Whether those who believe in US omnipotence believe it or merely adhere to the notion because it furthers their political interests is hard to say. It is likely a mixture of both, but the impact is all too often disastrous.

Arguing that the US has interests everywhere and more importantly possesses the levers with which to affect the political trajectory of other nations has become an encouragement to one hubristic US miscalculation after another — from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. When the failure to use US force is consistently portrayed as a sign of weakness the political imperative is always to act.

Obama, who foolishly “surged” 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan in 2009 is hardly immune from the political pressure. Five years later, he seems far more inclined to take his cue from an electorate that has little interest in looking around the world for new monsters to destroy.

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