Home/Daniel Larison/The Dishonest Charge of “Retreat” Revisited

The Dishonest Charge of “Retreat” Revisited

Dov Zakheim makes a dubious assertion:

The message of American retreat from its historic role as the leader of the Free World is not one that the president has intended to transmit, and indeed has protested against. It is now a universally accepted perception [bold mine-DL], however, and therefore has become increasingly difficult for the administration to counter.

To the extent that there is a perception that the U.S. is in “retreat,” it is either a seriously misinformed or self-serving one. For the most part, it seems to be the latter. Hawks assert that a retreat is happening because they favor more aggressive policies on a number of issues, and will portray anything else as an abandonment of an active role in the world. Anything short of their preferred policies comes to be defined as “retreat,” and the only remedy to “retreat” is to do what they want. Clients and allies that want the U.S. to do even more for them latch onto this claim because it gives them a rhetorical cudgel to use against Washington, and hawks in the U.S. are only too happy to help them use it. Because many Americans fall for bogus warnings about lost “credibility,” all of this is far more effective than it should be. This way allies and clients can pretend that they are expressing a widely-shared concern about American withdrawal from the world–which isn’t happening–instead of making self-serving complaints that Washington isn’t indulging their latest wishes quickly enough. Hawks then use these complaints as evidence that U.S. “retreat” is truly alarming to other governments, and so the cynical cycle of false alarm and extortion continues.

The people that profess to care most about U.S. “credibility” are busily working to undermine it by making baseless claims that it is being eroded everywhere, and the allies and clients that know very well that no “retreat” is happening help to maintain this fiction because it enables them to extract even more from Washington than they already receive. Thus many actors have an incentive to pretend to be worried about something that they all know isn’t real, so that the non-existent “retreat” becomes a supposedly inarguable reality. Perversely, the administration often can’t directly contradict these bogus claims without risking further accusations of “snubbing” and “insulting” allies and clients, and that gives hawks more fodder for their criticisms.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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