One of the most common critiques of American foreign policy today is that under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has sought to disengage from the world’s problems. No matter where one turns, there are complaints that Obama is seeking to “withdraw” or “keep out,” and worries that there are too many signs of America’s “retrenchment” and “retreat.”
But the idea that Obama has presided over an era of disengagement is a myth. And the fact that it endures reveals a lot about the foreign policy debate.
Let’s take a clear-eyed look at the facts and test this assertion of whether America has been disengaging.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” strategy has delivered far more U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic bandwidth in the region than existed eight years ago. That has meant strengthening core alliances with treaty allies like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, which are as good today as they have been in decades. It has meant shoring up new partnerships, like the crucial ties with India, and included transforming relationships in Southeast Asia, where the president will travel next week. In Vietnam, Laos, and even Burma, where the U.S. has opened diplomatic relations, the administration has expanded its economic, political and military partnerships. Obama has also negotiated the Transpacific Partnership, one of the most ambitious trade deals in American history that, if approved by Congress, will help create thousands of jobs and solidify a vast new market for the United States. All of this is indispensable to enabling the U.S. to manage China’s rise (which includes standing firm in the South China Sea), and to develop a firm and pragmatic approach towards Beijing.
Adding all this up, that is hardly disengagement.
Consider Latin America, where the United States is unquestionably in a stronger position in terms of its military, political, diplomatic, and economic relationships than it has been in decades. Whereas eight years ago, the United States was a pariah to many in Latin America, now it has strengthened ties throughout the hemisphere. And the opening to Cuba has created a new context for America’s regional leadership. Is that withdrawal?
Or look to Africa, where Obama has expanded significantly counterterrorism operations, military training and assistance, and our footprint from Nigeria to Libya to Somalia, and tackled the Ebola outbreak with direct American engagement, helping save tens of thousands of African lives. So much for retrenchment.
What about Europe? The continent is facing an extraordinary confluence of challenges, from an economic crisis, to Brexit, migration, right-wing populism, and Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia. None of these are the consequence of any alleged American retreat. In fact, the U.S. is in a better political position in Europe than it has been in a decade; Obama is the most popular leader on the continent, enjoying greater standing than most leaders are in their own countries (as shown by his recent trips to shore up Cameron in the UK and Merkel in Germany). Economically, the United States is in the midst of negotiating an ambitious new trade deal with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. And militarily, the U.S. is dramatically transforming its defense posture in Europe – reversing a planned drawdown, quadrupling its defense spending there, rotating American ground forces into Central and Eastern Europe to address the Russian threat, implementing missile defense and prepositioning heavy armor and equipment. This is not America doing less.
Consider broader issues like global warming or the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons. Last year’s Paris agreement on climate change, or the various steps taken at the Nuclear Security Summits, would not have been possible if the U.S. was “disengaging” from these problems. In fact, Washington’s leadership was the indispensable ingredient for success. As Obama likes to point out, it is hard to think of a single major international meeting that occurs in which the United States is not the one setting the agenda, framing the issue, or leading the charge. In these venues, no one looks to Moscow or Beijing for guidance.
Then there is the Middle East, which is at the core of the disengagement myth. Assertions of American “withdrawal” from the Middle East are simply false. For example, the U.S. military footprint in the region is greater than before 9/11 — including over 35,000 troops, hundreds of fighter aircraft and ships, and the most sophisticated weaponry on the planet. U.S. security partnerships with Middle Eastern allies are getting stronger. During the past several years, the United States has concluded several of the largest arms sales in history. It has worked to bring the military and intelligence partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, states into the 21st century by improving their capabilities against modern threats and ability to fight together. It has continued to provide Israel with the most sophisticated military equipment and generous financial assistance, and it has maintained its unique military partnership with Egypt – despite critics on the left and right who have advocated for the U.S. to cut ties.
In the fight against ISIS, the United States is hardly disengaging. It has roughly 5,000 troops deployed in Iraq and several hundred special operations forces on the ground in Syria. The U.S. has provided hundreds of tons of ammunition and military hardware to the Baghdad government and the Kurds, and is training Syrian forces. Since September 2014, under Obama, American forces have launched more than 11,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, killing an estimated 25,000 ISIS fighters. Is that the sound of military retreat?
So why does the myth of disengagement endure? I think there are at least two reasons. First, it reflects the justifiable anxieties of our allies around the world for the changes that they are confronting – and how these worries are then reflected (and in many instances promoted) in the Washington echo chamber. America’s partners in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East all feel nervous about the rising insecurity in their regions and the respective challenges of China, Russia, and Iran. They all want more of the United States, and they all have maximalist ambitions for what Washington can and should do. But since the U.S. has vital interests in all three regions, it can’t do everything. Therefore, by definition, it will leave these allies with the sense that we could always be doing more — and that perhaps the balance of effort we are distributing among our interests should be handled differently.
The second reason the myth of disengagement is so resilient is because it is perpetuated by a foreign policy debate whose own answer to everything is “more,” and whose primary metric of strength is the use of force. This is predominantly fueled by one side — for eight years conservatives have relentlessly peddled the caricature that Obama is feckless, weak and illegitimate. This is part of what has been going on broadly in the GOP for the past decade, as the party has become what the respected scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein described as an “insurgent outlier,” succumbing to the forces of nullification, extreme ideology, and alternative reality. The GOP has become a myth-making machine.
Back to reality: for Obama, military power remains indispensable. Just consider what the United States is deploying today in Asia and Europe and the Middle East. Or how, under Obama, the U.S. has revolutionized the use of drones, special operations forces, or cyber weapons. But it seems that for too many in the foreign policy debate, the idea of “engagement” is really just a code word for the kind of leadership in which the U.S. is out front, largely alone, and blowing up even more things. Or in the military realm, doing things with large numbers of ground forces – as though the entire burden of engagement rests alone with the 1% of the American people who serve in uniform. If current policy in the Middle East reflects disengagement, what sort of engagement do critics wish to return to? Does “disengagement” simply mean the U.S. no longer has 150,000 troops fighting a war in Iraq?
So in that sense, the argument isn’t really between engagement and disengagement. It is about what kinds of policies one thinks are best to position the United States to pursue its interests and lead in the future. President Obama (and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) represent one approach; the critique of America in the world today represents another. And all over the world, many now worry that if the Republicans led by Donald Trump were to be elected in November, they would follow through on his pledge to implement an “America first” policy, building walls higher and longer. If that happens, then make no mistake: the United States will really be in full retreat.