Despite these positives, Retreat and Its Consequences and the overarching approach that has guided Lieber’s policy views for so long suffer from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the argument of the book is simply based on a mistaken and endlessly repeated premise that the United States has significantly retreated from the world [bold mine-DL] and that this has been a key source of so many problems in it. Basically, Lieber, as we’ve heard so often from others, is arguing that the administration has pursued restraint, the world has gone to hell, restraint is responsible for our woes—and thus we must return to primacy. Admittedly, Obama, especially in his second term, has exercised greater discretion in how he has managed our global engagement and leadership. And he may in his heart of hearts have some sympathy with those who have counseled greater realism. But neither make for a policy of retreat.
Indeed, the United States under Obama has continued to pursue a variant of primacy despite what Lieber and others keep saying in their critiques.
Obama has been charged with presiding over “retreat” for almost his entire presidency, and these accusations have grown loudest during the second term when he has pursued an even more activist foreign policy than he did in his first four years. So the charge of “retreat” has never been based on what Obama has done, but has always been part of the larger fantasy record that hawks here in the U.S. have invented as a way of painting Obama as a “neo-isolationist” of some sort.
Sometimes hawks have tried to portray Obama as a proponent of “disengagement” from the world so that they can claim to be the only ones in favor of “engagement,” which they can then define to refer to nothing except their preferred policies. At other times, the dishonest charge of “retreat” has been used to shift blame away from outside intervention in a foreign conflict and pin it on supposed U.S. “inaction.” In that way, the horrors of the Syrian conflict aren’t blamed on the actors (including the U.S.) for their contributions to the war, but can be pinned on Western decisions not to interfere even more. The most remarkable version of the “retreat” criticism is applied to administration policies in the Middle East, from which the U.S. is supposed to have “pulled back.” That claim only makes the slightest sense if the point of comparison is the height of the Iraq war ten years ago, and even then it’s risible. Far from “retreating,” the U.S. is daily becoming more entangled in multiple conflicts and tying itself even more closely to its awful regional clients. In the eyes of interventionists, U.S. meddling there and elsewhere is insufficient and has to be increased, and so we hear about American “retreat.”
The truth is that the U.S. would benefit substantially from pursuing a more restrained foreign policy, and that would involve disentangling the U.S. from many of its overseas commitments. That would mean decreasing how much support the U.S. provides to its allies and clients with the goal of making them do more for their own security, and it would require us to scale back our role around the world. Instead of trying to be an enforcer of so-called “world order,” the U.S. would be focused on our own defense and that of our treaty allies. As a result, we wouldn’t assume that each new crisis or conflict is ours to fix. If anything Obama has done just the opposite of this with his constant efforts to “reassure” allies and clients that U.S. support isn’t going anywhere. There has been no meaningful retreat under Obama, but it suits his hawkish critics to ignore all of this so that they can pretend that their support for even more aggressive policies represents a return to “normal.”