The Compass

« "Stirring the Pot" and American Exceptionalism | Blog Home Page | Staying in Afghanistan »

Come Home America ... to Cliches

Fred Hiatt is worried that the U.S. is poised to "retreat" from the world:

Those who argue for a more vigorous international role are sometimes caricatured as war-loving and unilateralist when, in fact, an activist stance has been favored by Democrats from Harry Truman to Madeleine Albright and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Colin Powell. It would be no fairer to label them all bellicose neocons than to call Obama a pure isolationist.

So if this more "vigorous" international role isn't a constant reach for military force, what is it? Hiatt explains, kind of:

But there are risks to withdrawal as well as to engagement. Only a few years after the United States turned its back on Rwanda, our leaders felt compelled to apologize and ask themselves how they could have let genocide happen. When America last turned its back on Afghanistan, two decades ago, civil war followed, with al-Qaeda close behind. Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks, the 1990s’ equivalent of drone strikes. America learned on 9/11 how inadequate that response had been.

These are two examples (the only ones he cites) where a "vigorous" response is clearly a militarized one. So this is, in fact, exactly what critics of this style of "internationalism" are objecting too. (They should also object to self-styled "internationalists" whose preferred interaction with the world focuses almost exclusively on bombing parts of it.)

Kevin Drum also brings up a vital point: the kinds of interventions that the Hiatt's of the world are urging on the U.S. are the kind that we do badly -- not because Washington is somehow uniquely incompetent but because nation building is extremely hard and resource-intensive. Yet this never seems to figure into Hiatt's calculus.

For the record, I don't see the nomination of either Chuck Hagel or John Kerry as tipping a massive U.S. retreat from the world. I'd venture a guess that almost all U.S. military bases abroad not currently slated for closure or consolidation will still be in operation when they leave. The U.S. will still retain a wide network of ambassadors, will still participate and lead most international organizations, will continue to engage in trade negotiations and will still use lethal force against al-Qaeda in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. There may be a stronger reluctance to start large scale wars with countries absent a clear casus beli, but that's not a "retreat" in any meaningful sense of the word.