Originally published at the Washington Post by Fred Hiatt.
A stunning unfolding of international crises, from Iraq to Ukraine to Syria to Gaza, has prompted some less-than-edifying Washington debate: It’s all President Obama’s fault. No, it’s not his fault at all.
It would be a pity if partisan fervor kept us from learning from recent events, because in fact the available lessons are stark: We have witnessed as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.
Obama openly and deliberately adopted a strategy, not of isolationism, but of gradual withdrawal, especially from Europe and the Middle East. He argued that America should concentrate on “nation-building here at home.” He espoused a pivot to Asia, on the grounds that the Pacific region was the world’s most dynamic and deserving of U.S. military and diplomatic attention. (“Here, we see the future,” Obama told Australia’s parliament.)
Many policies followed:
• All U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Whether this was at the insistence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as Obama’s defenders argue, or because Obama offered so few troops, and so half-heartedly, that Maliki was bound to reject the offer matters less than this: Obama was content with the zero option and, as he made clear at the time, sanguine about Iraq’s prospects without a U.S. presence.
• As Syria descended into civil war, Obama decided that the risks of providing air support, weapons or training to moderate rebels outweighed any potential gains. Again sanguine, he confidently predicted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be overthrown anyway.
• After bombing Libyan forces to depose Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Obama declined to send trainers or other support to the new government.
• Obama declared that Assad, in gassing 1,400 civilians to death, had violated civilized norms and crossed his, Obama’s, red line. He asked for congressional approval for a military response; then he shelved that request in favor of a deal, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, for Assad to hand over his chemical arsenal.
What are the results?
Obama’s determination to gear down in Europe and the Middle East, regardless of circumstances, guaranteed that the United States would not respond strategically to new opportunities (the Arab Spring) or dangers (Putin’s determination to redraw the map of Europe).
Story continued at the Washington Post.
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