America’s retrencher in chief

It's time for the same Obama who spoke so eloquently of a post-partisan era, to shelve the politics and formulate a proper response to the ongoing debacle in Iraq

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Obama waves goodbye to the world?
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Taylor Dibbert
On 23 June 2014 20:26

Having recently finished Stephen Sestanovich’s excellent new book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, I’ve been reminded that retrenchment in U.S. foreign policy is nothing new.

Indeed, an ambitious America has often engaged in ‘maximalism’ and subsequently overextended itself. This had led to periods of retrenchment – the process has occurred on at least three occasions since 1945; the period examined by Sestanovich.

Sestanovich is a talented writer and his analysis is consistently nonpartisan. What’s more, the book is a fascinating examination of American foreign policy since the conclusion of World War II and a must-read for anyone interested in Washington’s role in global affairs during the past seven decades.

(Full disclosure: I was a student of his in graduate school and participated in his seminar ‘The U.S. Role in World Affairs’ at Columbia University).

The book left me reflecting on America’s current period of retrenchment and when Washington (and the American public) might snap out of it.

Mr. Obama, America’s latest retrenchment president, just wants Iraq (and Syria) to go away. After all, he didn’t seek the presidency so that he could fight foreign wars or double-down on the excesses of the George W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of polling which suggests that the American people are equally uninterested in a more assertive role for Washington on the world stage.

This brings us to Mr. Obama’s June 19th press conference about the ongoing crisis in Iraq. Mr. Obama appeared tired and fed up with the whole thing. It’s no secret that talking about problems in Iraq is one of the last things he’d like to be doing and the president didn’t see any reason to hide those feelings that day. Even though Mr. Obama wasn’t all that specific, he made it clear that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”

The following words were among the last of the president’s prepared remarks:

But what’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center, the issue that I keep front and center, is, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America? As commander in chief, that’s what I stay focused on. As Americans, that’s what all of us should be focused on.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and it would be unfair to say that the Obama administration bears all of the blame for the events that are currently transpiring. But it’s hard for Mr. Obama to argue that doing next to nothing in Iraq would be in America’s national security interests. We’ve seen what happens when terrorists are in control of large swathes of territory and radicalism goes unchecked.

It may be true that Washington simply doesn’t have sufficient intelligence to pursue airstrikes at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine a favorable outcome for the U.S. and its allies if we don’t do anything more than what Mr. Obama outlined last week.

Though difficult for Mr. Obama to digest, the Iraqis can’t fix this without significant international assistance and no one has emerged to replace Washington as the preeminent actor in world affairs.

Unfortunately, after watching Mr. Obama’s press conference on Thursday, one is forced to conclude that he still hopes that a multipolar world will manifest itself before he leaves the Oval Office and that burden-sharing will be truly equitable amongst Western nations and other allies.

If Mr. Obama ever faces reality, he’ll realise that sending a few hundred military advisers to Baghdad is an inadequate response. It’s time for the man who spoke so eloquently of a post-partisan era to shelve the politics and his own ideological constraints.

Only then will he be able to get on with the business of leading.

Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C. and the author of the book Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth

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