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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Debunking retreat argument against Obama’s foreign policy

President Obama shook hands with Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, during a meeting in Beijing.Getty Images/file 2014

Earlier this week, I went on NPR’s “On Point’’ to discuss the Obama administration’s foreign policy performance. One of my fellow panelists was Bret Stephens, an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of the new book, “America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.” It’s the kind of book that it catnip for conservative opponents of President Obama.

As Stephens said on the radio, while George W. Bush perhaps might have pushed too far in the direction of over-engagement, Obama has swung the pendulum back in the other direction toward isolationism and retrenchment.

Indeed, while I have not yet read Stephens book, in an excerpt I discovered that not only does he believe that “America is in retreat,” but that the retreat is the “motivating impulse” of the Obama presidency.


How can anyone make an argument like that? After all, the evidence that America is not in retreat and has not forsaken a role of global engagement during the Obama presidency is so obvious it is barely worthy of discussion.

But let’s do it anyway.

Since Obama took office, he has sent nearly 50,000 troops to Afghanistan; initiated a war in Libya that toppled Moammar Khadafy; and sent American war planes and drones to drop bombs in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq.

By my count that is seven countries that the United States has bombed since America took office. That even puts George W. Bush to shame. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiles a database of US drone strikes, there have been 404 such attacks in Pakistan since 2004 — 353 of them while Obama was president.

But the thing is we don’t even need to go back six years — let’s just look at what Obama has done in the past two:


■ Reached an interim agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear ambitions and continues negotiations toward a comprehensive deal. This achievement came after the Obama Administration helped to organize an international sanctions effort that helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table.

■ Spearheaded an exhaustive diplomatic effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict.

■ Launched a bombing and military campaign in Iraq and Syria to defeat the terrorist group ISIS and also organized a coalition of like-minded nations to do battle against the group.

■ Helped to organize a joint EU/US sanctions and diplomatic isolation campaign that has punished Russia economically in the wake of its seizure of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine.

■ Used the threat of US military force in Syria to achieve an agreement that led to the Assad regime giving up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons — a major nonproliferation achievement.

■ Reached a comprehensive deal with China to limit greenhouse gas emissions that could pave the way for a multilateral deal at next year’s Paris climate summit.

■ Reached agreement with the Afghan government to maintain a US troop presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US combat troops.

■ Continues to negotiate multilateral trade deals with the EU and Asia-Pacific nations.

For all of these large and obvious examples of US global engagement there are also dozens, if not hundreds of smaller ways, that US diplomats proactively pursue US foreign and national security interests around the world.


Apart from all of these things that the United States has done over the past six years to make its presence known on the global stage, let’s also take a look at all the things it has not done.

What I mean is that if, as Stephens writes, Obama’s “ideal foreign policy is to have less foreign policy, on the view that there’s a sharp limit on what the United States can hope to achieve,” then surely there are steps Obama has taken to pull up the proverbial drawbridge.

A nation actively retreating from the global stage would, for example, withdraw from international organizations, shed defense alliances, and cede power and influence to potential rivals. Quite the opposite is occurring. In the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the United States has worked to strengthen the NATO alliance. The US response to rising Chinese influence in the Far East is to reassert its support for military allies like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. And in the Middle East, America is devoting its military resources to standing up the Iraqi and Afghan military — and defeating ISIS.

Considering how overwhelming the evidence is that the US is doing the exact opposite of retreating, what exactly is Stephens’s evidence? In his book excerpt he bemoans the fact that “the Army is returning to its June 1940 size, the month Nazi Germany conquered France. In 2013 the Navy put fewer ships to sea than at any time since 1916, before our entry into World War I.”


Of course, a few things are different since 1940 (and 1916). For one, Nazi Germany no longer exists; same for Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union. Second, there are nuclear weapons, satellites and a branch of the US military called the Air Force. Third, there are well over 100 electoral democracies in the world; widespread economic interdependence; international organizations that safeguard global peace and security; dozens of US military allies and a current period of peace and security never before achieved in human history.

Lastly, the United States is by far the most dominant military actor on the planet with no country even closely rivaling US military power. In other words, comparisons to the inter-war years — and the specter of world wars and Nazis — are nothing more than fear-mongering. It’s an analogy that bears no relationship to the international environment that we are living in today.

However, it was during our radio discussion where one really comes to understand the source of the retreat argument. When we discussed Putin’s seizure of Crimea I pointed out that the United States responded very quickly to Russia’s actions. Moscow was suspended from the G-8, international sanctions were put in place, and condemnations rang forward from the world capitals and the UN General Assembly. In other words, the United States hardly shrank from a stance of global leadership in confronting Russia.

For Stephens the issue was the nature of the US response — why didn’t we immediately send military aid to Ukraine? That is a legitimate argument, although I can’t think of any reason to believe that it would have led to a different outcome than where we are today. After all, the only way to try to reverse Putin’s aggression would have been for the United States and its NATO allies to intervene in Ukraine militarily, a tactic that Stephens seems to acknowledge would not be a very good idea.


So in reality, the argument here has nothing to do with retreat. Rather, Stephens disagrees with the specific policy choices made by the Obama administration. But the goal of the policy Stephens is arguing for and Obama is implementing is exactly the same.

In fact, I am quite certain that Bret Stephens and the rest of the retreat crowd disagree with the US decision to negotiate with Iran. I’m sure they disagree with the climate change deal reached with China. I’m sure they think John Kerry shouldn’t be wasting his time trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In general, they tend to prefer use of military force — like in response to Syria crossing a chemical weapons red line — than diplomacy. And again that’s cool. I disagree with Obama’s decision to surge in Afghanistan and I think his support for mythical moderate rebels in Syria is ill-fated at best.

But you don’t get to call policy disagreements a retreat.


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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.