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Home/Daniel Larison/Why the Dishonest Charge of “Retreat” Endures

Why the Dishonest Charge of “Retreat” Endures

Michael Cohen reacts with disbelief to Bret Stephens’ book, America in Retreat:

How can anyone make an argument like that? After all, the evidence that America is not in retreat and has not forsaken a role of global engagement during the Obama presidency is so obvious it is barely worthy of discussion.

Cohen and I have both made the observation before that there has not been any U.S. “retreat” from the world. It is worth debating whether there should be significant changes in U.S. foreign policy, including the withdrawal of some U.S. forces deployed in Europe, the Gulf, Asia, but the fact of the matter is that nothing like this has happened or was ever likely to happen under Obama. The charge of “retreat” (or “disengagement” in its milder form) is specious and blatantly dishonest, but it continues to be made because it is a useful line of attack for hawks to make against any form of internationalism that isn’t as aggressive as theirs.

Like other bogus claims in foreign policy debate (e.g., “isolationism”), the charge of “retreat” is useful precisely because it is misleading and false. First, it puts the target of the accusation on the defensive and distracts attention from the horrible foreign policy views of the person flinging the accusation. Refuting garbage accusations eats up time and energy that might be more productively used in some other way. Casting their opponents as advocates of “retreat” helps hard-liners to pretend to be the only real internationalists in the debate, and it lets them set the terms of the debate so that anything short of their preferred policies can be equated as “retrenchment.” That helps hard-liners to drag the debate in their direction by constantly redefining what policies constitute “retreat” and which are consistent with U.S. “leadership.” Conveniently, their opponents are always supporters of “retreat” no matter what the opponents’ policies happen to be. Obama can conduct a foreign policy that is at least as objectively hawkish and aggressive as any modern president of the last forty years, and he can still be pinned with the “retreat” and “neo-isolationist” labels because he hasn’t done as much as the hard-liners want him to do. In truth, much of Obama’s foreign policy record is appallingly bad, but that is because it has frequently been in line with the kinds of policies that hard-liners support. That is another reason why hard-liners are so eager to portray the Obama record as a “retreat”: it allows them to disavow the consequences of the administration’s failed interventionist policies that they favored.

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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