The 'Obama Doctrine' and the costs of retrenchment

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Dick and Liz Cheney write that the Obama Doctrine is “collapsing.”  With respect to President Obama himself, “Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” 

The former vice president and the former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs make two fundamental errors in their assessment of the Obama Doctrine.  First, they fail to appreciate that, like the Nixon Doctrine, the Obama Doctrine is a strategy of retrenchment.  Second, although retrenchment is defined as “a policy of retracting grand strategic commitments,” this does not make it costless.  The coming anarchy in Iraq is one of those costs. 

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First, the Obama Doctrine is doing exactly what it was supposed to do: end America’s commitments to Iraq and, eventually, Afghanistan.  This will eventually pave the way for the U.S. to focus a greater percentage of military and strategic attention upon East Asia (meaning China).  Obama’s steadfast opposition to the second Iraq War was his strongest bona fide for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2007. 

Second, the Cheneys’ argument is reminiscent of the “turbulent frontier” thesis (or myth of Thermopylae): if Obama had only left “…behind some residual American forces” (implying their cheapness), everything would be fine in Iraq.  However, everything was not fine with Iraq when the Bush administration left office in 2009.  Furthermore, the Cheneys fail to appreciate the greatest threat to the U.S. is not Al Qaeda or Iran or Putin’s Russia, but relative decline; retrenchment is the best way to reverse it.

Withdrawing from the periphery carries costs.  Because of their weak position in the international system and the mismanagement of the occupation, Iraq is suffering as a result of our withdrawal.  When the British were at the point of bankruptcy after the Second World War, they were compelled to exit India and several of their possessions in the Middle East, leaving chaos and conflict in their wake.

When states make the appropriate tradeoff between overextension and relative decline, they are often able to bounce back and reclaim their place on the international ladder.  The more entrenched the rate of relative economic and military decline, great powers are more strongly compelled to forego opportunities to use force, increase burden-sharing with other states that share their interests, and pull back from commitments that do not pose a challenge to their existence. Pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the best ways we can preserve the unipolar moment.    

Wolf is a contributing analyst to Wikistrat.  Starting in August 2014, he will be a fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.