‘America in Retreat’: Why Neo-Isolationism Exploded Under Obama and What We Can Do About It

Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens’ new book looks at an America in retreat from global engagement.

12.01.14 10:45 AM ET

One of President Barack Obama’s more annoying habits is a rhetorical propensity for describing policies in black-and-white terms. The nation can either accept his ideas or risk ghastly consequences. Naturally when you paint the world in such stark colors, you see any and all opposition as delusional, malevolent, venal or a combination of all three. In no realm of policy-making has Obama’s obduracy been more profound than foreign affairs, the area about which he knows the least but presumes to know the most.

An early and memorable indication of Obama’s tendency to portray disagreement unfairly was his response to John McCain’s suggestion, during the 2008 presidential campaign, that America maintain a troop presence in Iraq for “maybe 100 years.” The U.S. maintains forces in Germany and Japan as a stabilizing presence decades after defeating those countries in war, the Republican nominee said, and the lives of its soldiers there are not under threat. Deliberately misconstruing McCain’s remarks in both letter and spirit, Obama assailed McCain as a warmonger, “willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq.”

A generous appraisal of Obama’s comments might chalk them up to mere campaign rhetoric. That might have been possible had not Obama—acting against the advice of his Secretary of State, Joint Chiefs Chairman, two Secretaries of Defense, and numerous other national security officials—executed plans to remove all American troops from Iraq by December 2011. The results of that rash decision, the most dire of which has been the rise of ISIS, are now plain for us to see. Obama had inherited an Iraq that was largely pacified, yet so committed was he to reducing America’s footprint in the Middle East that he sacrificed a set of hard-won gains to fulfill an ideological commitment.

That conviction is one stipulating that America causes more problems than it solves, and it has animated this administration’s policies ranging the gamut from Iran, where Obama hesitated to back the Green Movement’s democratic uprising in 2009 against a clerical fascist regime, to Ukraine, where he has outsourced the crisis of a Russian invasion to a bunch of feckless Europeans. Even when Obama supports American military intervention abroad, say, in the 2011 Libyan intervention, it is indecisive and lackluster by design. “Leading from behind,” a phrase intended as acclamation for the American role in deposing Muammar Gaddafi, now looks very prescient in describing this administration’s hesitant approach to the world.   

The Obama worldview has a worthy critic in the form of Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize-winning global affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, whose new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder is the best riposte yet to the advocates of American retrenchment. Given the way things are going in the world, there will undoubtedly be many more such critiques of this administration’s foreign policy. But future readers interested in learning about the era in which America decided to withdraw from its responsibilities as global hegemon should turn to Stephens’ book, which is not merely a critique of the Obama administration but a more general endorsement of America’s role as world policeman.  

America, Stephens writes, is not necessarily in “decline” but rather “retreat.” He draws an important distinction between the two. The former can be gauged quantitatively as “the product of broad civilizational forces” whereas the latter is a conscious “political choice” that can easily be reversed. America in Retreat is not just a salvo fired at the president but at the politicians and foreign policy analysts—including some prominent figures on the right—who share the view that America should choose to become less powerful for the sake of the world. Stephens rightly excoriates Republicans who insisted two years ago that Congress get a vote on air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which President Obama had half-heartedly threatened after the dictator crossed his now-meaningless “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians. For four decades, the GOP had loudly criticized the War Powers Resolution as an unconstitutional check on the president’s war-making authority. Yet in the case of Syria, Republicans smelled political blood, seeing an indecisive president put forward a plan in which he has barely invested, and put partisan politics before the national interest.

To illustrate the necessity of Pax Americana Stephens explains that there are three alternatives to American global dominance: “liberal peace,” “balance of power” or “collective security.” All have been shown throughout history to be pipe dreams. The notion that economic interdependence among states would make war all but impossible was buried in the ashes of World War I, the 100th anniversary of which this month has invoked some chilling similarities between our current predicament and that of yesteryear. Likewise, it was the attempt to balance the power of rival European states that led to the conflict. As for the third option, we have all too often witnessed the United Nations’ inability to prevent even small-scale conflicts, never mind great power ones. Only a preponderance of power in the hands of one hegemon whom most countries trust to enforce the rules can a modicum of peace and prosperity hope to be preserved (Stephens convincingly waives away accusations that American defense spending is too high or will “bankrupt” the country; with his 2009 stimulus package of $787 billion, he writes, “Obama spent more money in a single day” than all Defense Department spending in Iraq over the course of the conflict).

In abjuring America’s traditional responsibility as global cop, Stephens argues, Obama has all but articulated a “Retreat Doctrine,” which seeks containment not of America’s adversaries but of America itself. Obama is hardly novel in this sort of thinking, indeed, Stephens pungently writes, “progressives have not had a single original foreign policy idea” since the doomed 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, which blamed the United States, and not the Soviet Union, for the start of the Cold War. What’s chilling about this assertion is that it identifies Obama as the first president who seems to believe that the world would be better off with a less powerful United States. Even Jimmy Carter, to whom the current president has often been unflatteringly compared, became something of a hawk in his last year in office. Shell-shocked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution, Carter instituted a grain embargo on Moscow, ramped up defense spending, and armed the mujahideen. 

If all this sounds like a book hankering for the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, it isn’t. The Stephens Doctrine, if I may, is akin to the Bush Doctrine but shorn of its idealistic faith in the ability of some societies to liberalize, and in America’s responsibility to liberalize them. Stephens fundamentally wants America to “reassure friends and crush enemies,” rather the opposite attitude of the present administration, which has left our allies listless and our enemies emboldened. As for Bush’s ambition to spread democracy, Stephens derides it as “making dreams come true.” His penchant for practicality is symbolized by a frequent return to the world policeman analogy. Stephens endorses a “broken windows” approach to foreign policy (invoking the successful policing philosophy embraced by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, which placed an emphasis on ensuring communal trust in, and respect for, authority) that targets “geopolitical arsonists” in “short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not open-ended occupations for idealistic ends” Without an indisputable world leader, we will end up with a “world of freelancers,” vigilantes if you will, in which nations traditionally assured by American security commitments take the law into their own hands. Nothing in President Obama’s history indicates that he would heed the warnings of such an outspoken critic as Bret Stephens, but if he wants to prevent the coming global disorder, he should.