I had never been a big fan of American exceptionalism. It was too self-referential, self-identifying, self-focused for my personal comfort.
Then one bitterly cold day in February 1994, I was wandering through the open-air market in Sarajevo. The market had been hit by a single mortar round the previous weekend and sixty-eight people had been killed. Holes made by fragments from the 120-mm shell were still visible in the asphalt.
As I stared at the gouged surface in my battle dress and parka, Sarajevans began to come up to me, point to the small American flag on my upper sleeve, give a hesitant thumbs-up gesture, and whisper, almost prayerfully, “USA, USA.”
At that point it became clear to me that it mattered less whether I thought America was exceptional. What mattered was that many people around the world thought that we were, and expected us to act accordingly.
In many ways this is less something we have earned or even want, and more the product of historical circumstance. But a burden has clearly been ours, and when it is no longer ours the best judgment we can hope for is something along the lines of “As global hegemons go, these guys weren’t bad.”
Now, under President Obama, the United States is involved in a redefinition or at least a recalibration of that exceptional role. And the president is not alone. Some Republicans agree with him. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has been staking out foreign affairs and security turf for himself, criticizing American policy as “too belligerent” and calling for a reduction of commitments abroad and a renewed emphasis on housekeeping duties here at home.
Those inclined to support the president’s approach applaud him for conducting a reappraisal of America’s role, for working to more accurately align the definition of America’s interest with the realities of America’s power.
Those who are more critical characterize the policies as a withdrawal, an abrogation of American responsibility, motivated by a broad disinterest in foreign affairs and a desire to remake American society at home without global distractions.
Whatever your judgment on the merits of the course, the trajectory seems clear.
And in military terms, this retrenchment would be described as a retreat, the most difficult of all military maneuvers since, when badly managed, retrograde can become rout and movement in the face of the enemy can quickly devolve into chaos.
Take terrorism, for example. Last fall the Economist reported that al-Qaeda now controls more territory and has more adherents than at any other time in its history. So much for the hope (and the campaign rhetoric) that al-Qaeda was on the run, near strategic defeat, and that the tide of war was receding.
There remain real dangers—even as “al-Qaeda prime” in South Asia is reeling—that the organization will secure a safe haven in western Iraq and the eastern Syrian desert (unlike Afghanistan, not in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of the Middle East); that swaths of Yemen will resume their status as al-Qaeda bases; that Iraq will be de facto partitioned; and that al-Qaeda wannabes in Libya, the Sinai, northern Mali, and Nigeria will grow in strength.
The failure to sustain an American presence in Iraq has already moved that country toward the Iranian orbit and enabled a level of violence that rivals that of 2008. Some have blamed that on Iraqi obstructionism over a Status of Forces Agreement but, when he announced the total American withdrawal, President Obama himself labeled it as a “promise kept” and later (in a debate with Governor Mitt Romney) denied that he wanted to keep a residual force there.
America’s decision to “lead from behind” in Libya (and de facto disengagement after Muammar Qaddafi’s death) contributed to chaos there, the death of four Americans, a flood of arms throughout the Middle East, and a resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Sahel.
What now will become of Syria and the Levant since our policy there has never deviated from its one constant: Minimize American involvement ? Absent some dramatic turn in policy, possible futures are limited to: (1) a continuation of the status quo, which the US director of national intelligence has labeled an “apocalyptic disaster”; (2) the Syrian state effectively dissolving, with one successor fragment a radicalized Islamic caliphate; or (3) perhaps Iran’s ally Bashar Assad “wins.” All these outcomes take place at a historic crossroads of civilization with the US nowhere in view.
In the Persian Gulf, America’s Sunni allies are feverishly trying to divine the administration’s intentions after the president recently told the New Yorker, “You could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy war.”
Admittedly, the president prefaced that with a requirement that Iran change its ways, but the comment comes on top of a broader fear of abandonment and a general sense of unease about American reliability in the wake of last summer’s red-line debacle in Syria.
In Europe, the eastward expansion of freedom and free enterprise seems to have stopped at Kyiv as Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to baldly re-assert Moscow’s economic leverage and political power in the post-Soviet space. The early American response had been so minimal, with so little apparent willingness to impose costs on Moscow, that the release of an assistant secretary of state’s profane phone call actually provided a bit of rare good news in that it showed that America at least cared.
In Asia, what are we to make of China’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone, which encompasses broad reaches of the East China Sea, including the airspace over and around islands disputed with Japan? A rare Chinese diplomatic misstep, perhaps, or maybe overreach fueled by a Chinese judgment that the American “pivot” to Asia looks more like a “head fake” than a policy—something that should be tested?
To be fair, none of these issues have obvious answers, and many offer alternatives ranging from bad to very bad. There is also a general fatigue throughout the land. A recent joint poll by Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations found that a record fifty-two percent of respondents said that “the United States should mind its own business internationally” and eighty percent believed the US should address domestic problems over international ones.
But the costs of American inaction (in places like Syria, Libya, and Iraq) are now becoming obvious, and the toll seems to be mounting. Action in Syria, for example, is much more difficult and less likely to succeed now than one, two, or three years ago.
And Americans are not quite trending totally isolationist. That same Pew/CFR poll showed that more than half of Americans did not want the United States to “go its own way in the world.”
International involvement demands sacrifice, and sacrifice requires leadership. How many in that eighty percent above were influenced (or felt vindicated) by a president constantly reminding them that it was time to do some nation building “at home”?
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has accurately characterized Afghanistan as President Obama’s war of choice. Yet even here, the president has committed little of his personal or political capital, rarely speaks about it, and has created timelines for withdrawal independent of conditions on the ground.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent memoir summarized the approach: “the President . . . doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
The account is from an early 2010 meeting in the situation room, four months after the president announced his Afghan surge.
Recalibration. Retreat. Adjustment. Withdrawal. All tough tasks no matter how you describe them. Even tougher if they suggest to your adversaries (and your friends) that you lack the stomach for the fight.
Our greatest security danger in coming years? It might well be us.
Michael V. Hayden was the director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009.