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Magazine

How America Lost Its Nerve

Policymakers used to believe in a forceful projection of American authority. But after debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, they are turning inward.

Fallout: Relatives of victims of explosions along the Syria Turkey border mourn.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

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.

 

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.”

In truth, what Obama’s approach amounts to is the demilitarization of American foreign policy. This week, the president reshuffled his national security team, naming U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to succeed Tom Donilon as national security adviser and Samantha Power, whom Obama made the head of his new Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012, to take over for Rice at the U.N. Both women have a reputation for being aggressive advocates of intervention, and yet both have also moderated their views on using military, as opposed to diplomatic, approaches and “moral suasion,” to achieve this. In appointing Power last year, Obama cautioned that “preventing mass atrocities … does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not.” What’s missing is a clearer articulation of this. In a major speech in May at the National Defense University, the president indicated that the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan will mark an end of an era. It’s time to narrow and de-emphasize the global war against al-Qaida, Obama said, the better to focus on “nation-building at home,” his favorite theme. The war against terrorism that has completely defined America’s posture to the world in the nearly 12 years since 9/11 will come to an end in the foreseeable future. American deployments will go back to the meager presence we had pre-9/11, because, Obama said, “the future of terrorism” will be a smaller-scale “threat that closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” Obama said. He also is cutting back on drone strikes and narrowing the criteria for who’s defined as a strategic enemy, in part because “any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies.” The bottom line: Obama wants to turn terrorism into more of a law-enforcement and intelligence problem than a war. America doesn’t want any more enemies. America doesn’t want any more war.

As is usually the case when it comes to Washington, the rest of the world is in reactive mode, conforming gingerly to America’s gradual withdrawal from foreign entanglements. In Afghanistan, as in Syria, the allies are waiting on Obama when it comes to U.S. commitments for post-2014. Even as a frenetic John Kerry, eager to make his mark as secretary of State, is trying to organize a conference on Syria and is dabbling in shuttle diplomacy to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (talk, however tireless, is cheap), Obama is reducing discussions about any major physical intervention anywhere to a super-cautious crawl. And, bit by bit, he is drawing down from much earlier interventions—in March, the last American tanks pulled out of Germany after 69 years—and is backing away from previous military commitments, for example, by putting off the last phase of missile defense in Poland, citing vague plans for a new type of shield. “We are suspending development of hypothetical future replacement missiles that might be installed for missiles that in the future might be invented,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said archly in an interview in Washington this week.

Some observers say that if the new demilitarized approach to foreign policy goes too far and is not better explained, it could pose as many dangers as when America overreached militarily in Iraq a decade ago. “The sour taste [about overseas involvement] is obscuring the fact that American power around the world underwrites the global system and is the guarantor of peace,” says retired Gen. David Barno, who once commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If that perception of a strong American presence around the world wanes, there is no telling what could fill the vacuum.

Afghanistan is in a delicate state of neither here nor there, with perhaps even odds as to whether it will stabilize or fall back into long-term civil war. Top NATO and Afghan commanders interviewed in Afghanistan concede that the army and police are not even close to handling things by themselves. All of the NATO countries are waiting for Obama’s post-2014 commitment of troops, and a new report from the Center for a New American Security, coauthored by the recent U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, concludes that Obama may be heightening Afghan fears of abandonment by prolonging his decision-making. “Future American policy,” the report says, should be “motivated not by a desire to cut losses but with a determination to lock in hard-fought gains.” Yet Rhodes indicated the administration wants to wait and see how the Afghan forces do against the Taliban this “fighting season,” as well as how the Afghan political scene shapes up ahead of the country’s critical 2014 election. “This is a case of wanting to get it right rather than fast,” Rhodes says.

Despite Kerry’s recent efforts, the Middle East may be suffering as much now from American neglect as it suffered a decade ago from too much intervention, which began with the misbegotten Iraq invasion. What critics says was an abrupt full withdrawal from a barely concluded war that Obama once called “dumb” has left Iraq in a state of chaos, which has been seriously worsened in recent months because of the spillover from the civil war in Syria. In recent weeks, Iraq has suffered the worst outbreak of violence since U.S. forces withdrew in December 2011, with more than 500 people killed in May and more than 700 in April, the deadliest month since 2008. More broadly, the growing Sunni-versus-Shiite bloodshed in Syria has reignited that sectarian divide in Iraq and Lebanon, testing seriously the artificial national borders imposed by British and French colonialists nearly a century ago. If Syria comes apart, then Iraq and Lebanon, which have barely held together under strain from their own various autonomous groups, could follow.

Here, too, Rhodes says the challenge is more political than military. “We are concerned by the violence, [but] I don’t know that what X thousand U.S. troops would be doing to resolve it,” he says. “The U.S. does need to be deeply engaged politically in terms of helping the Iraqis to bridge differences…. We have one of [the] largest civilian footprints in the world in terms of our diplomatic presence.” Some Washington observers say Obama is administering a long-overdue corrective with his focus on diplomacy. “My entire career in national security we’ve been shifting more and more toward militarism,” says Mieke Eoyang of the left-of-center Third Way, a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. “I don’t know what they’re doing is too far, given how far out of whack it was.”

But, again, what counts around the world is the perception as much as the reality. While Obama has legitimate reasons for fearing that large-scale military aid could fall into the hands of the wrong Syrian rebels, even Kerry conceded this week that the United States been “late” in getting involved. Indeed, Obama has appeared to play catch-up during the entire course of the Arab Spring uprisings. And Washington is now doing little to shape an outcome, including enforcing a no-fly zone that some leading senators, such as John McCain, R-Ariz., have demanded. Indeed, Iran and Russia appear to be playing much larger roles—on the other side, by helping the Assad regime.

The president did little to address these tectonic movements in his May speech, saying that more deployments of troops overseas would mean “more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.”

Over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has become the emissary of efficiency and downscaling. This goes well beyond the sequester. The administration faces a long-term choice between, among other things, future defense expenditures and taking care of thousands of returned veterans. Last week, Hagel went to Asia to reaffirm the administration’s much-touted security “pivot” toward East Asia. But critics say that was mostly smoke and mirrors to cover the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq. “I think the pivot was really good marketing,” says Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They wanted to have a proactive message rather than signal we were slipping out of a war that some would say was unfinished, which would have encouraged the Chinese to continue their own press releases that this is their time in Asia.”

China, in any case, is still stepping up its assertiveness in the region, and even close allies such as Australia are hesitant over whether they can count on the United States in the future. (A recent defense white paper from Canberra said, “Australia welcomes China’s rise.”) “I think until there’s some money there and until somebody explains how you reconcile [U.S.] ships that are tied up in port and aircraft not flying with a ‘pivot,’ people are hedging,” says Dean Cheng, a longtime Asia analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The less aggressive U.S. posture is sending other signals to Beijing. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said earlier this year that should China’s military be found to be behind computer hacks into the U.S. defense infrastructure, it would not necessarily be a hostile act. Yet a Washington Post report found that designs for many of America’s most sensitive advanced weapons systems have been compromised by Chinese hackers. In response, the U.S. is now proposing … more talks. The administration wants to hold regular negotiations with the Chinese to set standards of behavior for hacking, just as it is now inviting the Chinese navy to participate for the first time in biennial Pacific Rim exercises. “That’s like Eliot Ness approaching Al Capone to say, ‘We’d like to work with you on controlling alcohol,’ ” Cheng says.

Like Beijing, Moscow also has been throwing its weight around somewhat more than usual in recent years—contracting with Assad in Syria to send him sophisticated air-defense equipment. Last weekend, Hagel attended the annual “Shangri-la security dialogue” in Singapore, but the event has been downgraded by China, which sent a lieutenant general, Qi Jianguo, the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, to head its delegation. Beijing even recently sent a small contingent of troops over the line of control established in 1914 into India. “I think the Chinese are testing us,” Cheng says.

A POLICY WITH NO NAME

No president will admit to being isolationist, of course, including Obama. That policy approach ended with Pearl Harbor, when the small but powerful America First movement abruptly dried up amid the outrage over the Japanese attack. America went from fighting and winning the war to rebuilding the postwar global system, for which it has since been the primary caretaker. Since that time, no American politician has been able to publicly embrace anything resembling isolationism and be elected to national office. But we have gone through periods of retrenchment when a war-weary nation has withdrawn, such as Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy” in 1920—then viewed as the antidote to Woodrow Wilson’s proto-neocon effort to “make the world safe for democracy”—and the Eisenhower era.

Today, however, it’s easier to be a stealth isolationist. The turn inward has been enabled by new technology, particularly drones, that allow America to project power without putting boots on the ground overseas or, in many cases, placing pilots in jeopardy. Cyberwarfare is also relatively cheap, especially in lives. “We have a lot more capability than we had on September 10, 2001,” Rhodes says. If security policy was once about deploying armies and navies to Europe and Asia—where, of course, they linger—it is now largely about playing large-scale video games with the rest of the world from the safety of our shores. At posts such as Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, drone operators can patrol the skies over Kabul by day and be home for dinner at night.

So, to a certain extent this is the policy that dare not speak its name. Obama has been hinting at this direction for some time. In January, in his second Inaugural Address, he did not issue the familiar stern warning to terrorists around the world we have grown used to since 9/11 (“You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you,” Obama had said in his first Inaugural Address). Instead, he focused almost entirely on domestic affairs, saying his “generation’s task” is to grant equal pay for women, affirm gay and voting rights, fix inequality, and keep children safe. The speech could not have marked a greater contrast to JFK’s famous 1961 pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Or George W. Bush’s commitment “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” as Obama’s predecessor put it in his second Inaugural Address.

When Obama picked Hagel—a surprise choice—he was anointing a Defense secretary who for most of his political career counseled extreme caution in the use of force around the world. Haunted by his experience as a twice-wounded infantryman in Vietnam, Hagel opposed the Iraq invasion and the “surge” that followed, as well as Obama’s Bush-like surge in Afghanistan in 2009. “I’m not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan,” Hagel told me in 2010. “It’s not sustainable at all. I think we’re marking time as we slaughter more young people.” He added, “It’s a huge mistake to get bogged down with over 100,000 American troops.”

STICKER SHOCK

There is another, more enduring reason the new isolationism could last longer than “Viet-malia” syndrome: the huge costs that have mounted, combined with the sheer duration of what has become America’s longest war. In an infamous exchange before Congress in 2003, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed estimates by then-Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Army chief of staff, that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq as “wildly off the mark” and declared that the cost of war and reconstruction would never exceed $95 billion.

Today, Wolfowitz is just another frustrated and powerless neocon, and Shinseki is Obama’s secretary of Veterans Affairs. The latest reckoning of the costs of that war come to a staggering $2.2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University—an amount that could turn just about anyone into a deficit hawk. The study also found that at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians died, although the Watson Institute says the death toll could be up to four times higher. An estimated 36,000 American military personnel were also killed or injured during the war. The Brown study said the nearly 10-year war by itself cost $1.7 trillion, with $490 billion more owed in benefits to combat veterans, and that total expenses could soar to $6 trillion over the next 40 years. In addition, the study concluded, future health and disability payments for veterans will total $590 billion, and interest accrued to pay for the war will add up to $3.9 trillion.

Beyond the costs, there is the scant return on investment. Doubts about nation-building and the considerable expense of counterinsurgency abound. As the just-departed Afghanistan commander, Gen. John Allen, said at a recent forum convened by Rand and Foreign Policy, “It will be 20 years before we undertake something like this again.” He added, “Something I worry about increasingly as time goes on is the sense that the development strategies in Iraq and now Afghanistan have failed. And that the development dimension of what we have attempted to undertake was either the wrong approach or just flawed from the beginning.”

Along with Allen, among the other authors of the new Center for a New American Security report that questions the administration’s approach to Afghanistan is Michele Flournoy, a forthright advocate of counterinsurgency doctrine who lost out to Hagel for Defense secretary, another clear signal of where Obama was headed. Whereas Hagel is haunted by Vietnam, Flournoy warned military planners might be too “risk-averse” because of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Although she was Obama’s chief foreign policy spokeswoman in the 2012 campaign, Flournoy was not offered an administration job.

Now Afghanistan will be a test case for how far this new attitude goes. Since 2009, Obama has chosen a middle course, literally splitting the difference between those advisers who wanted a bigger “surge” and those who didn’t. And then, in 2011, he announced an accelerated withdrawal plan, with a new deadline of December 2014 for the departure of all combat troops. But senior Afghan and International Security Assistance Force officials agree on one thing: The Afghan military and police will need at least several more years of major assistance in logistics, air support, medical services, and other areas after 2014. “We still need their help and support, maybe for another five to 10 years,” said army Chief of Staff Sher Mohammad Karimi in an interview in May. That assessment was echoed by Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of ISAF under Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who said the U.S. and NATO will have to “train, advise, and assist”—the post-2014 catchphrase—probably until at least 2018.

Yet those plans are barely sketched out. U.S. and European officials interviewed here appeared to agree on one other thing: Most of ISAF is waiting on Obama, whose administration is currently engaged in secret negotiations with Karzai’s government on the size and shape of the U.S. force that will be left in Afghanistan after the final drawdown of the 63,000 or so remaining American troops.

Early reports indicated that U.S. force would number perhaps 8,000, complemented by 4,000 or so troops from NATO countries. But France and Canada have announced they are leaving Afghanistan completely, and so far only Germany and Sweden have stepped up, offering fewer than 1,000 troops post-2014.

Obama has stressed his commitment to Afghanistan. But here, too, 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. It is a tension we are likely to be living with for a long time.

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