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.
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.
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.
None of this is to say that US power and influence are worthless. Far from it, but there are serious constraints on how effectively that power can be exercised — and grave consequences when it is wrongly applied.
As history has consistently shown, the US faces enormous barriers in affecting events in faraway lands that have their own political, ideological, religious and ethnic idiosyncrasies.
In this sense, what is so often dismissively labeled as retreat, withdrawal or isolationism is, in reality, restraint and pragmatism on the global stage — acknowledgment of the limits on US power; recognition that Americans are tired of foreign misadventures; and an understanding that even the best of US intentions can lead to the worst possible results.
US columnist Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
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