A review of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens

In the cycles of political punditry, Tuesday stands out as a day of refreshing moral and strategic clarity. That is when the Wall Street Journal runs Pulitzer Prize-winner Bret Stephens’s weekly column on world affairs. In America in Retreat he has expanded his canvas to produce an important book that reveals brilliantly the Obama Administration’s mishandling of foreign policy, geopolitics, and our national defense.

Stephens is quick to explain that retreat doesn’t mean decline. Decline comes unbidden at the hands of economic or geopolitical or demographic forces beyond one’s control. Retreat is a choice, and one the Obama Administration has foolishly embraced. From our military drawdown in Iraq, to a halting, muddled quasi-war in Afghanistan, to Obama’s obeisance before America’s enemies and hostility to our allies, Stephens paints a stark picture of America’s rush toward strategic irrelevance. The president has made disastrous choices, but choices are not destiny. In Stephens’s view, these are choices that can and must be reversed, however difficult that will be.

Along with its crystal-clear strategic analysis, America in Retreat discerns interesting historical parallels between America today and Great Britain after World War II, when the British—having spent so much of their national wealth fighting the war—were unable to reconcile the duties of empire and the exigencies of the Cold War with their burgeoning welfare state. Stephens understands the British choices in foreign policy to have been driven by domestic concerns, and believes America is on a similar course for similar reasons. He thinks it is the Obama Administration’s embrace of social democracy that inspires its “Retreat Doctrine.” Preferring “nation-building at home,” Obama has found ways to rationalize, and to effect, a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the hotspots of the Middle and Near East.

Stephens is aware, of course, that many Republicans share the view that America’s energies are better spent at home. Most Republicans in Congress supported the budget “sequestration,” which hit the military hard, and most have supported a go-slow approach to further entanglements in places like Syria. His book aims to reverse this bipartisan trend, so that the Pax Americana does not give way to a global disorder good neither for the United States nor for the world beyond our shores. He makes a powerful case, but if he is going to succeed in his worthwhile effort, he needs to take a closer look both at the Republican foreign policy that preceded the Obama Administration, and at American citizens’ response to that foreign policy.

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In a few pages he briefly deals with the intellectual failings of the George W. Bush Administration after September 11. He defends waging war against the terrorists but finds less sensible Bush’s “freedom agenda” and the eventual so-called democracy project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his own criticisms of the administration’s prosecution of the Global War on Terror, Stephens is not as understanding as he might be of ordinary Americans’ inclination to turn homeward when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moved from war-winning to nation-building. Reflecting on recent developments in Afghanistan, he writes, “Just when Afghans are beginning to find faith in their cause, Americans have lost faith in theirs.”

But confusion about America’s “cause” is exactly what has hobbled our foreign policy for more than a decade. What exactly is the cause that Americans should not lose faith in? Stephens makes a strong argument that American statecraft and warcraft have improved the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq: the economies, education systems, and infrastructure of those countries have progressed.

Stephens sees all this as a foreign policy version of the policing practices advanced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in their “broken windows” theory. Just as local police must enforce minor vagrancy and building code violations in order to discourage criminal elements from taking over a neighborhood, the U.S. must be prepared to engage in the world’s hot spots and tamp down the local bad elements, mostly of the Islamic terrorist variety. Generous-hearted Americans can be glad that Afghan girls are now going to school. But is it ungenerous of them to ask how many Americans should die so that Afghan girls may now read the Koran?

The goal of war is to be better off after having carried it out. The sensible “cause” of our war in Afghanistan and Iraq was to make the American people more secure, free, and prosperous. Americans were all for defeating an enemy that meant us harm, but they were less inclined to spend blood and treasure to make the lives of Iraqis or Afghans better off—particularly as the latter goal seemed, over time, less and less connected to the former. John McCain found this out, as did Mitt Romney when their own foreign policy stances came to seem like throwbacks to the Bush Doctrine.

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The country did not elect Barack Obama and then abruptly retreat. The country was already in retreat, strategically and politically, after George Bush made nation-building and the democracy project the heart of our engagement in the Middle East. So Stephens’s thesis is chronologically challenged. He is right to question Senator Rand Paul and his isolationist tendencies, but he does not quite explain why the American people are wrong to be disinclined to sacrifice their sons and daughters to improve things in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Americans supported the war on terror because they recognized the threat posed by militant Islam to Americans’ well-being. Stephens’s columns show that he is well versed in these dangers, but his book doesn’t dwell on them.

Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that America’s retreat from the world affords Islam as a global ideological movement the opportunity to gain ever more ground. For its most militant adherents, the cause of Islam involves the creation of a Global Islamic State. George W. Bush never explained that our purpose involved preventing the emergence of such a state. Instead, he called Islam a religion of peace and set America on the course of bringing democracy to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a failure of American grand strategy. Under Barack Obama matters have become much worse and much more confused. But as the country prepares to select a new president, it is as important for conservatives and Republicans to recall the failures of the Bush Administration as it is to understand Obama’s failures. This is not for the sake of pointing fingers, but because most of the Republican presidential candidates will surround themselves with the same advisers who crafted the Bush Administration’s doctrine and strategy.

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It is not only the Bush Administration’s handling of the war on terror that needs to be recalled. Conservatives rightly shake their heads at President Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear program and Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s assumption that allowing the Iranians to enrich uranium in lower quantities will somehow prevent their race to a nuclear weapon. But this approach is not obviously different from the approach of the Bush Administration.

It was during the Bush years that the Iran-ians pursued their nuclear program, built the advanced Shahab-3 missiles in quantity, had their children recite “death to America” and “death to Israel,” declared that a world without America was their goal, and, to demonstrate their intentions, engaged in the active killing of American servicemen in Iraq through terrorist strikes and production of roadside bombs and distribution of them to their Shia allies. They also tested ballistic missiles launched from a barge in the Caspian Sea, which implied that an Iran-ian missile aimed at the U.S. need not be launched from Iranian territory but could be launched from a ship off the American coast. So it is not unreasonable to ask why the Bush wise men gave the Iranian regime a pass. It is not merely that they did not engage them militarily; they did not do the obvious thing, which was to build a ballistic missile defense that would have negated the Iranian threat. Had a robust missile defense from land, sea, and space been built—something that was within the know-how of our scientific community—we would have less to fear today from the Iranian nuclear program that we are unwilling or unable to stop.

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The failures of American foreign policy have been failures of our foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democratic, as Angelo Codevilla has long argued in these pages and elsewhere. These failures will be repeated if a clear accounting is not made and a new course charted. America in Retreat paints a vivid picture of the disastrous course America is on. If we are to reverse course, Republicans will have to offer better foreign policy diagnoses and prescriptions than they have been offering. As a momentous presidential election approaches, I know where I will be looking every Tuesday in hopes of finding such wise counsel. America may be in retreat, but Bret Stephens is not.