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November 20th, 2017

Insight

Annals of retreat

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 22, 2015

 Annals of retreat

As it turns out, our president and commander in chief can face reality -- if he absolutely has to, and for the shortest time he can stand. Like a patient in the dentist's chair who just wants out.

So even while announcing that he was going to reverse course in Afghanistan (again) and keep American troops there after all, The Hon. Barack Obama let the world (and the enemy) know that our forces would stay in that country only until 2017. That way, the Taliban can time their next offensive to coincide with the next American withdrawal. It's getting to be a familiar script after all these repetitions.

The president added that the United States would be keeping less than 10,000 American troops there -- 9,800 to be exact -- instead of the at least 20,000 our generals say it would take to provide a credible deterrent. Long story short: Once again this president is adopting a "strategy" of too little, too late. And publicizing it.

You would think someone as bright as Barack Obama would have learned better by now. Since the last time he announced that this country was pulling out its troops from Afghanistan, that country's own fledgling forces promptly collapsed.

Much the same thing happened in Iraq when the president withdrew all our troops to much fanfare, and succeeded only in giving a whole new terrorist army (the Islamic State) a vacuum to fill. Yet he's proving a remarkably slow learner no matter how many times the lesson is repeated.

Can you imagine Harry S. Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower declaring that American forces -- whether in Europe or Asia -- would man the frontiers of freedom for only a limited time? Harry Truman learned his lesson when his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, declared South Korea beyond America's "defensive perimeter" -- and North Korea proceeded to invade it. And the Korean War was on. Up to 30,000 American troops have stood guard there ever since the armistice, while others provided a credible deterrent against Soviet aggression in Europe during the Cold War.

It is only now that a resurgent Russia under its new tsar has begun to seize one country after another or parts thereof -- Crimea, Ukraine -- and now has established a beachhead in Syria, leapfrogging NATO defenses and resurrecting the old Russian empire as its European neighbors shudder, awaiting Moscow's next advance.

As usual, weakness has invited aggression. His admirers describe this American president as leading from behind, though it would be more accurate to say he's not leading at all but sounding retreat all along the line as he abandons one old ally after another.

It was Margaret Thatcher who once told a different American president -- George H.W. Bush -- that "now is no time to go wobbly." On another occasion, the redoubtable Iron Lady observed that the trouble with socialism is that its supporters eventually run out of other people's money. The trouble with appeasement is that those who practice it tend to run out of other people's countries to sacrifice. And when they do, America must finally take a stand and fight, whether in Afghanistan today or in Korea and Vietnam decades ago.

Those tragic and costly wars might not have been necessary if we had maintained our vigilance. Not just in Asia but in Europe -- and not all that long ago. Remember when bombs were dropping on Belgrade during the supposedly peaceful Clinton Years? Now they're falling again, delivered by drones. And we're falling asleep again.

These are the years that the locusts have eaten, as Winston Churchill said of the 1930s, when another aggressor was on the march. But our president, in his ahistorical way, seems to have learned nothing from the past.

To quote Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, there's no way to guarantee success in foreign policy, but there's one sure way to guarantee failure -- "for the United States to waffle." And our president seems to do little else but waffle when it comes to foreign affairs. His is less a foreign policy than an improvisation. Call it an ad-hoc series of changeable positions with only one factor in common: drift.

Not since a president named Jimmy Carter has this country had a more irresolute foreign policy. Mr. Carter began his less than successful tenure in the White House by denouncing Americans' "inordinate fear of communism," and didn't wake up till the Soviets invaded Afghanistan some three years later. Only then did he see what the Soviets' "ultimate goals" were. As if Communist aggression had been some kind of well-kept secret till then.

Let it be said that Jimmy Carter did finally take note of Moscow's mischief-making all over the globe. Barack Obama still sleeps on. Even this late in his presidency he seems curiously incurious about Russian ambitions in Europe, the Middle East and points beyond. Or the role that regimes like Iran's play in fulfilling them. Nor does he seem aware of the high cost of vacillation when it comes to dealing with friend or foe, ally or enemy. Instead he continues to add only to the Annals of Retreat.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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