4 Lessons about America's Role in the World

The U.S. should seek to expand the ranks of the world’s liberal democracies.

It is difficult to think of another election season in modern history in which so many traditional tenets of U.S. foreign policy were being questioned. This is understandable at some level. The United States has fallen far short of its aspirations in its foreign policy, and it seems that conflicts and threats, rather than opportunities, are dominating our relations with virtually every region of the world.

Recent statements, however, not only by our presidential candidates but also by President Obama, suggest that our national debate is drifting in a concerning direction. The following points are becoming all too common in the national discourse, and must be considered with appropriate perspective as we decide on a sound new U.S. strategy.


1. We should disengage from the Middle East.

The bluntest articulation of this view has come from President Obama and his closest aides. The Arab Spring, according to CIA Director John Brennan, convinced the president that “the Middle East was consuming us.” President Obama concluded that only a few threats—Al Qaeda, Israel’s existence and a nuclear Iran—justify direct military intervention. Otherwise, he stated, “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa...That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.” Overextension in the region, President Obama fears, could “ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”

The problem with the president’s critique—shared to varying extent by the presidential candidates—is that it fails to consider the even greater problems that would arise amid a U.S. retreat. The United States protects access to the Persian Gulf, holding the line against a regional conflagration that would instigate an oil price shock. The ill-considered disengagement from Iraq in 2010, the resulting rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria offer a taste of what would happen amid a further U.S. withdrawal. Already, regional powers were doubling down behind their proxies in the Iraqi and Syria civil wars, but the assertion of Russian power has made these wars even more dangerous. Moscow has returned as a significant player in the geopolitics of the region—a factor that, until now, had been absent since the Cold War. Other great powers, particularly China and the Europeans, are also becoming more involved in the Middle East, which points to the beginning of a chaotic multipolar trend as a consequence of American retrenchment.

Confidence in the United States to manage regional security has already declined. Some states are hedging by building relations with U.S. rivals, including China and Russia. However, it is difficult to see how the United States could avoid defending a critical set of interests beyond what the President has outlined. If sectarian war were to spread to the Shia areas of eastern Saudi Arabia, where ten million barrels of oil are produced every day, could we remain uninvolved? Facing the prospect of a major recession at home from disruptions in global energy markets and a further tilt toward Iran in the geopolitical balance, Washington would be compelled to undertake a large-scale U.S. intervention in defense of Saudi Arabia on the order of Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

We are better off remaining engaged in the Middle East, and shaping events positively, rather than allowing major crises to arise, which would compel us to intervene in much more difficult and costly circumstances.


2. We should strike terrorists kinetically, but avoid getting involved in nation building.

As Sen. Ted Cruz put it, “It is not the job of the U.S. military to engage in nation building to turn foreign countries into democratic utopias.” Donald Trump has also argued against nation and state building abroad.

In fact, the rationale for U.S. involvement in nation and state building has always has been more hard-headed and nuanced than creating “democratic utopias.” Consider the history of why the United States decided to pursue nation building in Afghanistan in the first place.

As a White House official in 2002, I shared the view, espoused by President Bush and his principal advisers, that the United States should maintain a light military footprint in Afghanistan. After spending many months in Afghanistan as a presidential envoy, however, I realized that it would be impossible to prevent the reemergence of terrorist safe havens without rebuilding the country’s institutions.

I, among other skeptics, came to embrace state building, not out of airy idealism, but rather because there was no other way to secure our core counterterrorism interests at a cheaper cost. We concluded that the long-term solution to achieving even basic counterterrorism objectives was to enable Afghans to defend and police their own territory, thereby preventing the infiltration of terrorist groups from Pakistan and the regrowth of such groups from within. Otherwise, Americans, rather than Afghan troops and police, would have to stand watch unless we were prepared to allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist sanctuary again.