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Worse Than American Expansionism? American Isolationism: A European View

Op-Ed: Barack Obama wants to end a “decade of war” by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But as the United States increasingly focuses on its own problems at home, its allies will be vulnerable to an ever more uncertain world.

(PhotoDu.de)
(PhotoDu.de)
Alan Posener

This was the U.S. president's reason for bringing troops home from Afghanistan: to officially end an expansive era in American foreign policy—‘‘a decade of war‘" as he put it in a speech to the nation, when some ‘"would have had America overextend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad."

"America," Obama concluded, "it is time to focus on nation building here at home.""

But those who felt euphoric at this death knell to neo-con policy may want to think again -- even more dangerous than American expansionism is what hits after the euphoria subsides: American isolationism.

For the US military, troop drawdown in Afghanistan is happening too fast, while for war-weary Americans back home, it's not happening fast enough. Arguing about it is a waste of time, however, because what's dictating the timing — the president's own fate — is more pressing than Afghanistan's fate.

By the elections in November 2012, Obama will have brought enough soldiers home to convince supporters of the seriousness of his intentions, but not enough to let Afghanistan collapse.

‘"We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,"" Obama said in his speech. Read: We're giving up on trying to democratize Afghanistan. Just as long as it doesn't return to being a safe-haven for al Qaeda—and drones and special forces like those presently operating in Pakistan can deal with that.

Phasing out democracy exports

Obama can wind down George Bush's project to export democracy even more easily as his potential opponent in the presidential elections is taking a position of even greater distance from Bush's transformational foreign policy, e.g: ‘"We believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home."

Jon Huntsman, who many think stands the best chance of winning the Republican nomination, wants to cut military budgets and focus resources on facing the Asian (read: Chinese) challenge and becoming more competitive economically. And on Friday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted against US involvement in Libya. While the vote is merely symbolic and not binding for the president, it is a sign of the changes in Republican priorities.

The main change is a return of the right to its roots. Because despite what left-leaning Europeans claim, what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger dubbed the ‘"imperial presidency"" applied to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson: all Democrats.

Since Wilson's wanting ‘"to make the world safe for democracy,‘‘ it is the Democrats who have tended more to internationalist policy and Republicans to a more skeptical realpolitik. Wars in Korea and Vietnam started by Democrats were ended by Republicans.

Republican Ronald Reagan, demonized as a warmonger, in fact led only one war: the invasion of Grenada. His successor George H.W. Bush freed Kuwait, but preferred to leave Saddam Hussein in office rather than take on the responsibility of rebuilding Iraq.

His son promised during his first electoral campaign to reduce the size of the army and not to use it for nation building.

Post Bin Laden, 180° turn

Osama Bin Laden's 9/11 attacks engendered a 180° swerve that gave neo-cons the opportunity to turn their concept of safety through democratization into the official foreign policy of the Bush administration.

Many Republicans pointed out – rightly -- that this neo-con policy was neither new nor conservative, but merely a rehash of Wilsonian ideas.

However that may be, the ‘"unipolar moment‘‘ stayed just that: a moment, and no one was going to turn this into a ‘"new American century."" Americans actually don't relish the role of world policeman, and the US is not in a position to pursue a long-term imperialistic strategy.

As President Obama said in his Afghanistan speech, in clear reference to the neo-cons: ‘"We stand not for empire but for self-determination.""

We shouldn't however lose sight of the reason for this new-found modesty: ‘"It's the economy, stupid!"" Debt and deficit levels haven't been this high in the US for 60 years. While the EU agonizes over the possible bankruptcy of Greece, the US Department of the Treasury announced last week that unless Congress raises the legal debt ceiling by August 2, the United States would not be in a position to service its debts.

The European Union, which Commission president José Manuel Barroso has described as a ‘"non-imperial empire,‘‘ cannot escape the fact that it has problems at its outer perimeters, in Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, civil wars in Syria and Libya, the complex process of the Arab spring, that it cannot deny. It's also going to have to learn the lesson of Libya: that in the future the US is not automatically going to assume leadership when it comes to defending the interests of the West.

For his policy in Libya, Obama coined the phrase ‘"leading from behind‘‘ but Europeans haven't felt much leadership from any direction.

The greatest danger in America's withdrawal from the world is that undemocratic forces will seek to fill the void. This represents an unprecedented challenge for Europe. And it does not bode well that Germany, when put to the test, torpedoed EU foreign and security policies to which loyalty was so often pledged.

Read the original article in German

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