Published November 8, 2014
When Bret Stephens, foreign-policy columnist for the Wall Street Journal, penned the final words of America in Retreat in the spring of 2014, America’s world role seemed a low priority for most Americans. A Pew survey in the autumn of 2013 found that 52 percent of the public believed that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” — the highest percentage expressing such views since 1964 — and 51 percent said the U.S. did “too much in helping solve the world’s problems.” In a poll from April 2014, 62 percent opposed providing arms or supplies to the Ukrainians.
This isn’t to say Americans were exactly happy with President Obama’s adamant passivity either. Many expressed misgivings about his handling of Vladimir Putin, and majorities felt that America was less respected internationally than it had been. On balance, as Stephens was writing, Americans were feeling standoffish about the world. Pew’s July 2013 survey was titled “American International Engagement on the Rocks.”
Even Republicans, traditionally vigorous internationalists, were whipsawed by the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Senator Rand Paul seemed to capture the new Republican caution when, in 2011, he introduced legislation to cut military spending and scale back U.S. bases overseas. “When we’re short of money, where we can’t do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn’t be shipping the money overseas,” he explained. The Pew survey found that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to support the NSA’s intelligence-gathering operations. In 2013, when President Obama called on Congress to rescind the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force or AUMF (the declaration of war against al-Qaeda), 30 House Republicans voted in favor.
As for the Democrats, they seemed comfortably settled into the foreign-policy prejudices that had fit them so well since the Vietnam era—with occasional lapses. (Those lapses, such as the Iraq War, proved expensive for some Democrats—Hillary Clinton and John Kerry come to mind—who strayed.) The Obama foreign policy, to the degree it achieved coherence, was outlined in a speech the president gave in May 2013: All wars had to end sometime, so we would unilaterally “end” the War on Terror. We had “nation-building” to do at home. “Les extrêmes se touchent,” Stephens notes. Extremes meet.
Events of the past six months, particularly the accelerating pace of ISIS’s territorial gains, Russia’s brazen aggression toward Ukraine, and the ghoulish, videotaped beheadings of two American journalists, have squelched the Republican flirtation with Paulite isolationism—for now. Rand Paul himself has been discovering the virtues of military force, contradicting his earlier positions. Last March, for example, Senator Paul published an op-ed cautioning that “America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.” But in September, Paul announced that if he were president, he “would . . . seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”
It’s been said that isolationists on the left reject American engagement in the world because the world is too good for us, while isolationists on the right think the U.S. is too good for the world. Both have been in full voice for the past half decade, with few clear-eyed hawks willing to contest them.
Events have forced President Obama to rummage in the old George W. Bush speech files to poach some muscular language about terrorism, and to grope awkwardly toward some de minimis military strikes in the Middle East to satisfy a worried public. But these are spasms. What America in Retreat supplies is the intellectual case for confident, world-spanning leadership by the United States.
It began as a reply to a letter—and it was revealing that Stephens had no idea whether the correspondent was a liberal or a conservative—expressing the mood of our time: “We cannot be the world’s policeman.” In the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan era, that shibboleth was widely shared. Stephens demolishes it.
We can and must be the world’s policeman, he argues. If we choose not to, the chaos that will be loosed on the world will endanger everything we hold dear. A world without American leadership won’t be just “messy,” to use Obama’s recent phrase, but profoundly destabilized. We may, Stephens warns, be in a moment like the 1930s, a “decade in which economic turmoil, war-weariness, Western self-doubt, American self-involvement, and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce the catastrophe of World War II.”
America in Retreat tackles the lingering confusion about Iraq and Afghanistan. Didn’t our misbegotten interventions prove that America must learn the limits of military power? Didn’t it show that when the U.S. resorts to force, it is bound to be trapped in unwinnable slogs?
“The real question,” Stephens writes, “isn’t why we went into Iraq. The justifications for it were, and remain, abundant. The question is how we went from a decisive victory in 21 days to a seven-year occupation in which some 4,000 Americans perished.”
Saddam Hussein’s serial offenses against international order—his attacks on Iran, Kuwait, and Israel, his support for terrorists, his war crimes (the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds), his corruption of the Oil for Food program, his pursuit of nuclear capacity—all richly merited the attention of an international policeman. Where U.S. policy went wrong, Stephens argues, was in seeking to be social worker, psychologist, father, parole officer, boss, mentor—in short, nation-builder. Under the misguided leadership of Paul Bremer, who disbanded the Iraqi army, dismissed thousands of civil servants, and introduced a new currency, among other steps, we sought to rebuild Iraqi society from the ground up. Bremer “transformed the perception of the United States among Iraqis,” Stephens writes, “from Mr. Big—the power not to be messed with—to Mr. Busybody—the nuisance not to be borne.”
President Bush erred in allowing his war goals to inflate beyond what was necessary or even achievable. When weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, the war morphed into a campaign to make Iraq a model Middle Eastern democracy, a beacon for an Arab world thirsting for the same freedoms we enjoy.
The original swift sword of American power in Iraq achieved its objectives and then some. Saddam was toppled. His gangster sons were killed in a shootout with American forces. Our message to the world—that “we had a low tolerance for flagrant challenges to global order”—was immediately comprehended by others. Libya surrendered its nuclear materials. Iran suspended work on its nuclear-weapons program (for a time). Syria withdrew from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. We should have left well enough alone, Stephens contends.
Instead, with a misguided “light footprint,” we permitted chaos to engulf Iraq. “We would think of the Iraq War very differently now,” says Stephens, “. . . if the surge had come at the beginning of the war, not the end of it. . . . It wasn’t the overreliance on force that led to near fiasco; it was the timid application of force in the face of an enemy that knew only the logic of force.”
Americans, including some Republicans, also seemed to lose sight of the prudential case for maintaining a presence in Afghanistan. President Obama got only limp protests when he announced plans to withdraw all American forces. Short memories obscured uncomfortable strategic realities, such as that (1) American retreat from Afghanistan would be interpreted by jihadists worldwide as evidence of American lack of resolve; (2) a Taliban victory would open the door to al-Qaeda’s return; (3) a triumphant Taliban in Afghanistan could serve as a staging area for the Pakistani Taliban to overthrow the regime in Islamabad and take control of its nuclear weapons.
And did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan impoverish the nation, as Obama claimed? “Obama spent more money in a single day—February 18, 2009—with the signing of the $787 billion stimulus package than the Defense Department spent in Iraq in an entire decade—$770 billion.”
America in Retreat is a powerful polemic, eminently quotable. Analyzing Obama’s efforts to move the U.S. toward European-style social democracy, Stephens writes, “By its nature, entitlement spending crowds out defense spending: faced with the choice of arming soldiers or funding pensions, voters will invariably go for the latter. . . . When you don’t have a hammer, no problem ever looks like a nail. Europe expresses a consistent preference for diplomatic, ‘soft power’ approaches to foreign policy in part out of sincere conviction, but also because those are the only options available to policy makers.”
When Great Britain abandoned world leadership—walking the cop’s beat—in 1947, it handed the job off to the United States. The world we consider normal and natural was made possible only by American power. If we relinquish the role now, there will be no order at all, only the dangerous and opportunistic maneuvers of ambitious and possibly reckless “freelancers,” who, as we’re already beginning to see after six years of Obama-directed retreat, are swarming the redoubts we’ve abandoned.
Russia’s ambition to recapture its former empire is clear enough; what remains uncertain, and accordingly increases the risk of armed conflict, is whether NATO’s explicit security guarantees remain solid.
China is throwing elbows in all directions, provoking confrontations with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the U.S. “Observing Chinese behavior today,” Stephens writes, “reminds many observers of Germany in the run-up to the First World War: bullying but insecure; grasping but aimless; animated by no larger idea than nationalist paranoia and historical resentment.”
Iran is determined to gain nuclear weapons, an eventuality that, if permitted to unfold, will certainly provoke nuclear proliferation in the least stable region of the globe and may precipitate the world’s first nuclear exchange. Al-Qaeda and its progeny, including ISIS, multiply in the rich soil watered by perceived American timidity.
The U.S Army announced in February that it would be cutting twelve of its 45 brigades. The Navy will temporarily retire eleven of 22 cruisers. The Air Force will draw down 25,000 airmen and 550 planes. In 1964, the U.S. had 859 ships at sea. Today, it has 289. “As American retreat becomes increasingly noticeable, adversaries sense a strategic opening to revise regional, and global, order in a way that’s more to their liking. And our allies are forced to consider their security options in ways they haven’t for many years.”
The world policeman, as Stephens envisions it, moves quickly to punish disturbers of the peace. It puts fires out promptly. It defends allies and deters opportunistic aggressors. Just as “broken windows” policing deterred crime in America’s big cities, “the American interest is to be the defender of the world’s responsible citizens. . . . They need to know that there’s a policeman on the corner to ensure they aren’t being harassed or hustled or menaced or mugged.”
American retreat, he argues, is not decline. Despite our debt, our sluggish growth, and our doubts about recent international efforts, the United States remains the world’s strongest, most stable, and most benevolent force. We can shape a world that offers security for the peaceable, or we can retreat and leave the field to the cutthroats, the terrorist fanatics, and the empire builders. The lesson of America in Retreat, and of recent history, is that there is no third choice.
–Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.