Is it possible for an American president to accidentally carry out an isolationist foreign policy? That odd question crossed my mind last week as I talked with various foreign-policy experts about the Middle East, Russia, and Afghanistan. Judging by his words and his travels, there can be no doubt that President Obama intends to be anything but an isolationist president. He proudly called himself a citizen of the world while in Berlin during the campaign. He has gone out of his way to travel the world, speak to the world, and reach out for the favorable judgment of all the peoples of the world.
And yet, wherever one looks, one sees American influence visibly and voluntarily shrinking. Consider three world hot spots: the Middle East, Russia and its near abroad, and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether you talk to Jew or Arab, Turk or Kurd, Sunni or Shiite, the de-Americanization of Middle East policy is the emerging factor to be reckoned with. The uncertainty of the American trumpet, the indecisiveness of the American hand, and the modesty of the American goals are freeing the strong and forcing the weak to prepare to fend for themselves. American ineffectiveness (under both George W. Bush and Mr. Obama) in the face of Iran’s nuclear quest drives nuclear-acquisition plans throughout that unstable zone.
We saw the effect of reduced American influence most recently in the matter of the flotilla to Gaza, with America playing “honest broker” instead of Israeli ally. The net result was an absence of American deterrence to anti-Israeli instincts. Israel backed off, and her enemies notched a victory and are planning for future, more intrusive challenges to Israeli sovereignty. In the absence of a stern American presence, all the murderous forces indigenous to the region are getting loose.
Our imminent departure from Iraq is another dangerous case in point. As Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — who is in charge of the withdrawal — reaffirmed recently, we will reduce troop levels to 50,000 even if no new Iraqi government takes shape:
It’s going to be painful; there’s going to be ups and down. But I do think the end result is going to be that we’re going to be able to keep our commitment (to leave).
Speaking recently, however, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. commitment to Iraq endures and that as U.S. troops depart, “a strong American civilian presence will help Iraqis forge political and economic progress.” Well, we can hope so.
However, a senior Israeli military adviser last week described to me what Israel expects to see as the United States pulls most of its remaining troops out of Iraq. Iran will start to reassert its claim to oil-rich southern Iraq (populated mostly by Shiite Iraqis) — the cause of the Iraq–Iran War of the 1980s.
Turkey will challenge — with military force — the Kurds in northern Iraq for the oil-rich lands around Kirkuk while also using the opportunity to repress Kurdish moves toward a de facto independent Kurdistan in what are now parts of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. The Kurds have thrived since the U.S. invasion of Iraq as America’s best friends in the area. With American withdrawal, they are likely once again to be brutally repressed — this time by the Turks rather than Saddam Hussein. How much value Mr. Obama’s “strong American civilian presence” will be to the Kurds as they face Turkish tanks and attack planes remains to be seen.
Next, consider revanchist Russia’s drive to re-dominate the lands of its old empire. I was at a Washington think-tank seminar last week on America’s “reset” Russia policy. The scholar on the panel representing Russian interests was so glowing in his compliments for the new Obama policy that he couldn’t avoid chuckling, and by the end of the discussion it had become something of a running joke that Mr. Obama’s Russia policy (including withdrawing missile defense from Poland and the Czech Republic, restraint in Georgia, acquiescence to new Russian influence in the Ukraine, ambiguous nuclear-disarmament agreements, etc.) fit Russia’s desires to a T. Once again, it is the weakness or absence of strong American diplomacy that is the coming hallmark of developments in Russia and its border area.
Most strikingly, this danger can be seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the operational fighting level, increasing American irrelevance was vividly and heartbreakingly described by George F. Will in his superb column on Sunday, in which he described our Army’s new rules of engagement, which are making our troops the laughingstock of the battlefield. No patriotic American can read George’s description of those rules and not feel something between nausea and fury — or both.
At the strategic level, the story is the same. I had breakfast last week with a veteran military/diplomatic adviser whose counsel has been sought by a wide range of American officials from Richard M. Nixon to Colin L. Powell to senior Democrats in the Senate and administration. He was just back from a visit to Pakistan, where both the Pakistani army and the intelligence services are preparing for American withdrawal. Whatever Mr. Obama meant by his firm commitment to start drawing down by July 2011, all players in the region are assuming America will not be a long-term player — as I discussed regarding Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, in this space last week.
This newly modest American diplomatic/military stance in Central Asia (after our unprecedented big buildup following Sept. 11, 2001) is causing increased assertiveness by all the traditional players (India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China) along with the increased confidence of the radical Islamists and drug merchants in the region.
In April 2009 in Strasburg, France, London, and Istanbul, Mr. Obama, in his triumphant tour of Europe, proclaimed that America could no longer carry the burden of world leadership alone. Others would have to join in. In the ensuing year, we have begun to see the effects of that vision in practice.
The characteristic aspects of Mr. Obama’s new foreign policy in action might fairly be described as: (1) a refusal to assert American will; which leads to (2) the description, but not the attainment by force, of American objectives; and, thus, (3) acquiescence to the assertion of will by other nations or forces.
Though this may not be intentional isolationism, it is turning out to be pretty much the same thing. Each of these impending disasters, among others, is on its own timeline — but they all point to the same conclusion: a world no longer guided by a powerful, benign hand, but rather a world that is the target of malignant grabbing hands and pounding fists.