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In the decades after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the simplistic but widely held belief that the war had been unjustified and unwinnable gave way to “the Vietnam syndrome”—a conviction that the United States should avoid all military interventions abroad. The mantra of “no more Vietnams” dominated foreign policy, muting more concrete discussions of what should be learned from that experience. Instead, the analogy was applied indiscriminately; U.S. military operations in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East prompted assertions that the use of force would lead to “another Vietnam.” It was not until the United States won a lopsided victory over the military of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the 1990–91 Gulf War that President George H. W. Bush could declare that the United States had finally “kicked the Vietnam syndrome.”
Nearly three decades later, however, a new mantra of “ending endless wars” has emerged from frustrations over indecisive, protracted, and costly military interventions abroad. These frustrations have reproduced the Vietnam syndrome in a new guise: the Afghanistan-Iraq syndrome. Across the political spectrum, many Americans have come to believe that retrenchment would not only avoid the costs of military operations overseas but also improve U.S. security. They have found support for this belief in analyses like those that appeared in this magazine’s lead package for its March/April 2020 issue, titled “Come Home, America?”
The authors of the articles in that package offered different variations on the retrenchment theme. But what some of the articles have in common is an appeal that reflects strong emotions rather than an accurate understanding of what went wrong in the wars that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Proponents of a U.S. withdrawal from its military commitments play to visceral feelings of war weariness and argue that the difficulties of those wars were the inevitable consequence of the United States’ misguided pursuit of armed domination. Some retrenchers depict U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War as a fool’s errand, impelled by a naive crusade to remake the world in the United States’ image. And although advocates of retrenchment often identify as realists, they subscribe to the romantic view that restraint abroad is almost always an unmitigated good. In fact, disengagement from competitions overseas would increase dangers to the United States; the paltry savings realized would be dwarfed by the eventual cost of responding to unchecked and undeterred threats to American security, prosperity, and influence.
In their critiques of the post-9/11 wars, retrenchers fail to acknowledge the hidden costs of their recommendations. Although a majority of Americans now agree that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, retrenchment advocates ignore the consequences of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and of the broader disengagement from the Middle East that accompanied it. Those steps ceded space to jihadi terrorists and Iranian proxies, thereby creating an ideal environment for the return of sectarian violence and the establishment of the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State (or ISIS). The Obama administration made similar mistakes in Libya earlier in 2011, after pushing for a NATO air campaign that helped depose the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Although it was determined to avoid the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq, the Obama administration paradoxically exceeded them, failing to shape Libya’s political environment in the wake of Qaddafi’s demise; nearly a decade later, the Libyan civil war rages on, and the country remains a source and a transit point for millions seeking escape from turmoil in northern Africa and the Sahel.
Retrenchers ignore the fact that the risks and costs of inaction are sometimes higher than those of engagement. In August 2013, the Syrian regime used poison gas to kill more than 1,400 innocent civilians, including hundreds of children. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration in 2012 that the use of these heinous weapons to murder civilians would cross a redline, the United States did not respond with military force. U.S. inaction enabled the regime’s brutality, emboldening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian supporters to intensify their mass homicide. In 2017–18, U.S. President Donald Trump finally enforced the Obama administration’s redline, retaliating against the use of chemical weapons by Assad with strikes against the Syrian military. But Trump’s decision in 2019 to withdraw U.S. forces from eastern Syria complicated efforts to eliminate ISIS and bolstered the influence of Assad and his sponsors in an area whose control would give them a significant advantage in the war. Almost nine years since the Syrian civil war began, a humanitarian catastrophe continues in Idlib Province, which, at the end of 2019, generated over a million more refugees, many of whom succumbed to extreme cold or the novel coronavirus.
Retrenchers ignore the fact that the risks and costs of inaction are sometimes higher than those of engagement.
Despite evidence that U.S. disengagement can make a bad situation worse, retrenchers have pushed for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020 will allow the Taliban, al Qaeda, and various other jihadi terrorists to claim victory, recruit more young people to their cause, gain control of more territory, and inflict suffering through the imposition of draconian sharia. Just as the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS generated a refugee crisis that reached into Europe, the establishment of an Islamic emirate in a large portion of Afghanistan would generate another wave of refugees and further destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of over 220 million people. Terrorist organizations that already enjoy safe haven in the Afghan-Pakistani border region will increase their profits from illicit activities such as the narcotics trade and apply those resources to intensify and expand their murderous campaigns. Retrenchers do not acknowledge that U.S. withdrawal often leaves a vacuum that enemies and adversaries are eager to fill.
Retrenchment advocates are relatively unconcerned about enemies gaining strength overseas because they assume that the United States’ geographic blessings—including its natural resources and the vast oceans that separate it from the rest of the world—will keep Americans safe. But in today’s interconnected world, threats from transnational terrorists (or viruses, for that matter) do not remain confined to particular regions. The humanitarian, security, and political consequences of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have reached well beyond the Middle East and South Asia. Just as China’s concealment of the coronavirus forestalled actions that might have prevented a global catastrophe, the United States’ withdrawal of support for its partners on the frontlines against jihadi terrorists could generate staggering costs if the terrorists succeed in penetrating U.S. borders as they did on September 11, 2001. And a reduction of U.S. support for allies and partners along the frontiers of hostile states, such as Iran and North Korea, or revisionist powers, such as China and Russia, could result in a shift in the balance of power and influence away from the United States. Retrenchment could also result in a failure to deter aggression and prevent a disastrous war.
Retrenchers also overlook the trend that the security associated with the United States’ geographic advantages has been diminishing. In 1960, the historian C. Vann Woodward observed that technologies such as the conventional aircraft, jet propulsion, the ballistic missile, and the atomic-powered submarine marked “the end of the era of free security.” Those technologies overtook “Americans so suddenly and swiftly that they have not brought themselves to face its practical implications.” Retrenchers are out of step with history and way behind the times.
Even the most compelling arguments for sustained engagement overseas are unlikely to convince hardcore retrenchers, because they believe that an overly powerful United States is the principal cause of the world’s problems. Their pleas for disengagement are profoundly narcissistic, as they perceive geopolitical actors only in relation to the United States. In their view, other actors—whether friends or foes—possess no aspirations and no agency, except in reaction to U.S. policies and actions. Retrenchers ignore the fact that sometimes wars choose you rather than the other way around: only after the most devastating terrorist attack in history did the United States invade Afghanistan.
In the “Come Home, America?” package, Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press argue in “Reality Check” that abandoning what they describe as Washington’s pursuit of primacy would quell China and Russia while providing opportunities for cooperation on issues of climate change, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. And in “The Price of Primacy,” Stephen Wertheim asserts that a less threatening United States could “transform globalization into a governable and sustainable force” and bring about a reduction in jihadi terrorism, a less aggressive China, a curtailment of Russian interference, the termination of North Korea’s threat to U.S. and regional security and human rights, and even progress against the threat from climate change.
If these promises seem too good to be true, it’s because they are. Retrenchment hard-liners are confident in such claims because they assume that the United States has preponderant control over future global security and prosperity. In reality, adversaries have the power to act based on their own aspirations and goals: American behavior did not cause jihadi terrorism, Chinese economic aggression, Russian political subversion, or the hostility of Iran and North Korea. And U.S. disengagement would not attenuate those challenges or make them easier to overcome.
The movement in favor of retrenchment is in part a reaction to the overoptimism that animated U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, some thinkers and policymakers assumed that the process of democratization that was unfolding in eastern Europe would be replicable in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But they failed to give due consideration to local contexts and to political, social, cultural, and religious dynamics that make liberal democracy and the rule of law hard to reach. Similarly, after the United States’ lopsided military victory in the Gulf War, some assumed that future wars could be won quickly and decisively because U.S. technology had produced a “revolution in military affairs.” But this presumption ignored continuities in the nature of war, such as the enemy’s say in a war’s course of events and its political, human, and psychological complexities. Excessive optimism soon grew into hubris, setting the United States up for unanticipated difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The best antidote to such overconfidence, however, is not the excessive pessimism offered by retrenchers. Policymakers should instead adopt what the historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy”: an understanding of the ideology, emotions, and aspirations that drive and constrain other actors. Strategic empathy might help at least some advocates of retrenchment qualify their adamant opposition to democracy promotion and human rights advocacy abroad and might allow them to accept that the United States cannot determine, but can influence, the evolution of a world in which free and open societies flourish. In recent years, protests against authoritarian rule and corruption have flared up all over the world. In Baghdad, Beirut, Caracas, Hong Kong, Khartoum, Moscow, and Tehran, people have made clear that they want a say in how they are governed. Support for those who strive for freedom is in the United States’ interest, because a world in which liberty, democracy, and the rule of law are strengthened will be safer and more prosperous. Disengagement from competitions overseas would cede influence to others, such as the Chinese Communist Party, which is already redoubling efforts to promote its authoritarian model. Retrenchment may hold emotional appeal for Americans tired of protracted military commitments abroad, but blind adherence to an orthodoxy based on emotion rather than reason would make Americans less safe and put the United States further in the red.
CORRECTION APPENDED (July 14, 2020):
An earlier version of this article stated that in his March/April 2020 article (“The Price of Primacy”), Stephen Wertheim argued that U.S. retrenchment could bring about “the cessation of Iran’s proxy wars.” Wertheim’s article suggested that “the United States should end its grudge match” with Iran but did not claim that doing so would have that particular effect.