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The Dishonest Charge of Withdrawal and Disengagement

Fred Hiatt very much wants us to believe that America’s “gradual withdrawal” and “disengagement” from the world have produced a number of terrible outcomes:

Obama openly and deliberately adopted a strategy, not of isolationism, but of gradual withdrawal, especially from Europe and the Middle East. He argued that America should concentrate on “nation-building here at home.” He espoused a pivot to Asia, on the grounds that the Pacific region was the world’s most dynamic and deserving of U.S. military and diplomatic attention.

There’s a lot wrong with Hiatt’s analysis, but the worst part is that he can’t find more than one example to support his main claim that the administration has pursued “disengagement” from the rest of the world. That’s probably because the main claim is a dishonest one: there hasn’t been much, if any, meaningful disengagement over the last five years. On the contrary, the U.S. has been adding to its overseas commitments rather than reducing them, and that has been particularly noticeable over the last two years. Obama may have led voters to expect something very different after his re-election, but that isn’t what he has delivered. While the U.S. may not be meddling as actively or directly as Hiatt wants, that is very different from scaling back its involvement around the world.

To the extent that the so-called “pivot” had any practical significance, it represented an increase in U.S. involvement in East and Southeast Asia, which was scarcely offset by any changes elsewhere. More to the point, the administration has been consistently stymied in pursuing the so-called “pivot” because it has chosen to let itself be pulled into crises and conflicts in other regions that it likely could have avoided. Hiatt doesn’t like that the U.S. didn’t bomb Syria last year, but choosing not to start a new war is “withdrawal” only in the most deranged hawkish mind. Likewise, he faults the administration for not intervening earlier in Syria’s civil war, but opting not to join another country’s civil war doesn’t mean that the U.S. has withdrawn anywhere.

Hiatt disapproves of the decision not to occupy Libya after the regime fell (ignoring the fact that the interim Libyan government rejected this option when it mattered), but attacking and overthrowing another government in concert with U.S. allies have absolutely nothing to do with disengaging from the rest of the world. If the U.S. topples a foreign government through military action, and then chooses not to spend the next five or ten years getting American soldiers killed in a vain effort at state-building, that it evidence that at least some minimal learning took place after the Iraq war. Obviously, there wasn’t enough learning going on, because the administration still made the error of waging an ill-considered war for regime change. Hiatt’s complaint is that Obama didn’t make Libya into another Iraq with another open-ended occupation. The hegemonist worldview is so distorted that it treats not occupying yet another country as proof of “retreat.”

The closest that Hiatt gets to coming up with a good example to support his argument is the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, which tells you something about how awful his argument is. Supposing that the U.S. had somehow managed to keep a small residual force in Iraq beyond 2011, what would that have changed? As far as I can tell, it would have changed nothing except to ensure that more Americans kept dying in Iraq for no discernible purpose. Iraq is the only example where the charge of withdrawal is deserved, and the alternative that Hiatt prefers–keeping American forces in Iraq with no end in sight–would have clearly been a much worse one for the U.S.

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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