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Obama Hasn’t Presided Over ‘Retrenchment’

The U.S. is involved in more wars in more countries today than it was when Obama became president.

Kori Schake tries to keep the myth of “retreat” and “retrenchment” under Obama alive:

Once in office, Obama made it clear that his commitment to retrenchment extended much further. Time and again, he sought to limit or reduce U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, even when circumstances changed in ways that led many—including some of his closest national security advisers—to advocate a more robust use of force.

When we review Obama’s record in detail, we see that he was usually unwilling to involve the U.S. as deeply in new conflicts and crises as hawks would have liked, but that isn’t what retrenchment means. He doesn’t have a “commitment to retrenchment,” and hasn’t presided over retrenchment. If he had, we could then debate whether that was appropriate and successful, but it never happened. I suspect hawks have to rail against the imaginary version of Obama’s foreign policy, because his real one consists of doing many of the things that they wanted him to do. If Obama’s foreign policy record is not very good, it is because he wrongly listened to the advice of interventionists too often rather than too little, and so we are treated to a fictional story about how “retrenchment” produced the failures that have actually come from intervention and meddling.

A president committed to retrenchment would have not only withdrawn fully from all of our foreign wars well before he left office, but he also wouldn’t have initiated any new ones or looked for reasons to take sides in foreign civil wars. He would have reduced support for client states instead of increasing it. He definitely wouldn’t have declared an intention to “pivot” to Asia, but would have been looking for ways to reduce U.S. commitments there as well. Instead of ending U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, he involved the U.S. in wars in at least three countries (i.e., Libya, Yemen, Syria) where the U.S. military role had been minimal or non-existent before he became president. In almost every instance when Obama had the choice between refraining from involvement in a conflict or taking sides in it, he reliably chose the latter. He may have done so slowly and half-heartedly in some cases or more quickly and recklessly in others, but that is what he ended up doing.

Let’s consider all the times that Obama involved the U.S. in new wars in one way or another. Obama launched an intervention in Libya that many–including some of his closest national security advisers–thought unnecessary and unwise. This was an entirely new war that Obama launched without Congressional authorization, and it was justified in terms of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine championed by liberal interventionists. The fact that it didn’t lead to a multi-year occupation of the country doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an aggressive intrusion into the affairs of another country. The U.S. attacked and helped overthrow a government that posed no threat to us or our allies. Some retrenchment. Obama didn’t take sides in Syria as swiftly or aggressively as Syria hawks wanted, but he nonetheless took the side of anti-regime rebels, armed them, and later on expanded the new war on ISIS into Syria. U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen has been essential for keeping the coalition’s bombing campaign going, and except for a few last-minute restrictions Obama’s backing for that war has been unstinting from the start. A president committed to retrenchment wouldn’t have done any of those things, and Obama did all of them.

It isn’t possible to have a constructive or informative foreign policy debate when one side consistently misrepresents what has been happening over the last eight years, but then I suppose that’s the point of distorting the record. Obama has presided over eight years of uninterrupted foreign wars, and yet he has been regularly chided for not wanting to use force more often and with greater intensity. He has continued one, started a couple (one of which is ongoing), and joined at least one other that his successor will also inherit. If he hadn’t been overwhelmingly opposed by a popular backlash in 2013, he would have been responsible for launching yet another intervention. The U.S. is involved in more wars in more countries today than it was when Obama became president. By any reasonable definition, that can’t be what retrenchment looks like, and calling it that distorts the meaning of the word so much as to make it useless.



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