How America Lost Its Nerve Abroad

Policymakers used to believe in a forceful projection of American authority. But after debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, they are turning inward.
Afgh Hirsh.jpg
An armoured U.S. Marine vehicle is enveloped in smoke after it was hit by an IED roadside bomb attack during a patrol of Now Zad district in Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Much as Baghdad once did, this city feels like an outpost of American imperialism. There's the familiar "green zone," the checkpoints you have to zigzag through, the armored convoys roaring by in clouds of dust, their IED jammers poking up like peacock tails.

But all of this vast presence is focused on one task: getting out.

Across Kabul -- and out in the provinces of Afghanistan -- U.S. military advisers are developing the Afghan securities forces as carefully and tenderly as a mother lion nurtures her cubs into killers. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world, but the newborn Afghan National Army isn't getting second-rate surplus equipment, the usual fare for Third World client states. The Pentagon ordered up from Textron new armored troop carriers, worth $1 million apiece, that are so state of the art Canada bought 500 of them for its own army. "They provide the same protection as we have for our vehicles," says John Simpson, Textron's team leader. Washington is also building Kabul a huge $92 million defense headquarters, one of the world's largest ("Pentagon No. 1; this No. 2," an Afghan officer, Col. Mohammed Shah, proudly explained in halting English), and a $54 million Interior Ministry to oversee the Afghan police.

In Afghanistan, there is a direct tension between a president, and a people, who want to go home, and the very real demands on America's attention that remain.

The object of this largesse is not to expand America's reach. Quite the contrary: It is to expedite Afghan readiness so we can hand things over as quickly as possible -- and ensure we never have to come back in force. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is himself in no apparent hurry for the U.S. to leave -- he's still getting bags of CIA money, and he has publicly offered us no fewer than nine post-2014 bases. But President Obama is clearly eager to get our forces out (as almost all the polls agree he should), and he's hesitating over making any further commitments of troops, either here or anywhere else. It's not only that Americans in overwhelming numbers want to withdraw from Afghanistan; they don't want the president sending troops anywhere else, either -- in particular, Syria -- despite a humanitarian catastrophe that already dwarfs that of Kosovo in the late '90s.

According to a new Gallup Poll, 68 percent of Americans say the United States should not use military force in Syria, even if diplomatic efforts to end the civil war fail. Sensitive to the war-weary mood, the president has sought to explain in a series of speeches and actions --defying almost his entire national security team, for example, in refusing to supply arms to Syria -- that he's paying close attention to what the public wants. But in doing so, critics say, Obama may be relinquishing American leadership in critical regions of the globe, and leaving a vacuum that more-aggressive powers such as Russia and China are trying to fill.

Like Ike

What all this adds up to is an attitude that hasn't been seen in decades, perhaps as far back as the Eisenhower era of the mid-1950s. That was a time when the fresh memories of World War II and Korea, and fear of exacerbating the Cold War, drove Ike to avoid open conflict abroad (although, like Obama, he was fond of covert action). Today, too, there is an inward lean to American foreign policy, a listing homeward that appears to be a kind of neo-isolationism. Compared with the neoconservative strain of a decade ago -- a belief in the aggressive projection of American power voiced most recently by Mitt Romney early in the 2012 presidential campaign -- it is virtually a reversal of direction. The reasons are obvious. According to surveys, we think we've been out too much in the world in recent years, and we're feeling badly burned and spent, financially and emotionally. We want to come home. Rightly or not, Obama is merely channeling these sentiments.

Back in the 1990s, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke invented the term "Viet-malia" syndrome -- a contraction of Vietnam and Somalia (the "Black Hawk Down" debacle) -- to explain President Clinton's reluctance to intervene overseas. Clinton eventually got over it, going into Bosnia and Kosovo. But what's shaping foreign policy decisions now feels more enduring. Call it "Iraq-ghazi-stan" syndrome. It is the chilling effect of the terrible drain of the Iraq war, the long slog in Afghanistan, and the bloody and embarrassing aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya -- both the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead, and the spread of Muammar el-Qaddafi's weapons caches across the region.

When you combine these traumas with the economic fallout of a lingering financial crisis, compounded by the political paralysis in Washington that led to the sequester, the picture is complete. It's just not as cool as we thought, being the lone superpower. Can't someone else spell us for a while? "All these things are signaling a subtle change, a lower profile and more selective approach to the world," says Gordon Adams, a scholar of international relations and defense expert at American University. "I don't think [Obama] has stepped away from global involvement. There's no way you can avoid it. Rather, he is backing away from the more assertive view that every issue is ours, that we've got to push everybody else to do things, that we're the indispensable nation. That's morphing into something else."

The idea of "humanitarian intervention" that dominated policy debates before 9/11 has become, for the Obama team, the "notion that we shouldn't just do things to make us feel better," in the words of one administration official. But are we preventing ourselves from doing things that the U.S. ought to be doing, whether it's intervening to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe or checking the growth of Chinese or Russian power?

Obama administration officials say there is no retreat or retrenchment, simply a "rebalancing" of the use of American power from "hard" to "soft" in the wake of failed military interventions, especially in Iraq. As an example, they cite the funneling of $250 million of U.S. civilian aid to the Syrian rebels for building an alternative political structure to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. "I don't know what influence having troops in Iraq got us in Iraq," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told National Journal in an interview this week. "I actually would argue that we're more actively engaged around the world today than we were 10 years ago ... because we were entirely focused on Iraq 10 years ago."

"Obviously, we're in a time of austerity here," Rhodes adds. Yet he notes that the president is calling actively for increases in civilian foreign aid. "In many respects, for whatever reason, the debate got entirely distorted into one that says people who are for engagement around the world are for keeping troops in Middle Eastern countries, and if you're not, you're somehow for isolationism.... It's a kind of weird distortion."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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