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The Price of Pulling Back From the World

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
February 9, 2014
New York Times


It is easy to forget that when Barack Obama ran for re-election in 2012, his foreign policy was a huge asset. The United States was out of Iraq and doing O.K. in Afghanistan, and had killed Osama bin Laden. Mitt Romney had nothing to shoot at.

Today the president finds it harder to explain his global strategy. His emphasis on "nation-building" at home seems to point in one direction, Secretary of State John Kerry's activist diplomacy in another. Uneasy allies worry that Washington has lost interest in them. Congress is challenging the president on issues from trade to Iran. Critics say American leadership is in decline.

The best way to understand Mr. Obama's predicament is to compare it with that of previous presidents who wound down major wars. He's not the first to promise a less expensive, more sustainable foreign policy at a time when the country feels overextended. Dwight D. Eisenhower after Korea, Richard M. Nixon after Vietnam, and the first George Bush, after the Cold War, said much the same thing. Their less-is-more record contains good news for Mr. Obama, and clear warnings.

The public has always supported presidents who get America out of stalemated wars. In their first terms, Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Obama reassembled a foreign-policy consensus and were decisively re-elected. Mr. Obama has not lost the argument that America needs relief from global burdens. Polls show the public has no more enthusiasm for the Afghanistan war than he does.

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