Our war on terror is now reduced to euphemisms and symbols about moderate Islam — masking a deadly escalation in targeted assassinations via drones. That paradox is quite sustainable because the American progressive media decided that waterboarding three confessed terrorists for information about future terrorist plots was an intolerable crime, whereas rendering 3,000 suspected terrorists mute through remote-controlled Hellfire missiles is not. Because we no longer have a truly honest and independent press, the limits of tolerance for U.S. mishaps have expanded as never before. Losing an ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, with no real idea of why they were so vulnerable or, indeed, why they were all there in the first place, is a curious artifact, not a scandal. Al-Qaeda was declared on the run by the Obama administration — an ironic truth, because it is metastasizing in new directions, to Algeria, Libya, Mali, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, even as we declare jihadism to be a personal journey.
The George McClellan–like plan for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan on strict timetables, after much lost American blood and treasure, perhaps will bring a sense of release to Americans who are tired of both those ungrateful places. Yet soon some disturbing videos of what our abdications wrought — reminiscent of Saigon in 1975 or Kurdistan in 1991 — may usher in as much moral embarrassment for us as joy for our enemies.
Looming behind these changes in U.S. foreign policy is the reality of borrowing nearly $6 trillion in four years, with another $4 trillion scheduled in the Obama second term. That massive indebtedness — known as “investments” or “stimulus” — will weaken U.S. influence and eventually ensure huge defense cuts in the manner of the 1990s. As it is now, behind almost every current American foreign initiative is the reality that 40 cents on the dollar are borrowed to pay for it — a fact well appreciated by our opportunistic enemies in waiting.
As the U.S. slowly withdraws, in the manner of the British before and after World War II, all the old hot spots that have receded in our memory — Cyprus, the Aegean between Greece and Turkey, the Falklands, the 38th Parallel, the Persian Gulf, contested islands off Japan — will become news again. If Afghanistan does not return to its pre-9/11 status as a terrorist haven, then Somalia, Sudan, or Yemen will have to do.
In short, interested parties rightly assume the U.S. cannot or will not intervene abroad. They envision making opportune territorial adjustments during this remaining four-year window of opportunity — just as China invaded Vietnam, Russia went into Afghanistan, Communists infiltrated Central America, and Islamists stormed our embassy in Tehran in the waning years of the Carter administration.
Will the world lament the consequences of a U.S. retreat? Not likely.
A theme of Western philosophy from Plato to Tocqueville has been the people’s preference for equality, rather than greater freedom and prosperity with the attendant cost of inequality. The idea of an America more or less the same as other countries — imperiled by debt, class tensions, and festering social problems, and without a global footprint — will be welcome news to most of the world, even as their own neighborhoods become much poorer and more dangerous places.
Indeed, the worse the U.S. performs, and the lower the American profile abroad, the more the world likes Barack Obama — almost as if to say, “At last, they’re just like us.”
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in the spring from Bloomsbury Books.