The president always considered our intervention in Iraq a distracting mistake. Most Americans are happy our troops are out. He’s been far more ambivalent about Afghanistan, for political as well as substantive reasons. Like many Democrats, he saw the war in Afghanistan as justified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in a way Iraq was not. But time and conditions on the ground have convinced him that there are limits to what the United States can accomplish there. He’s trying to extract our troops in a careful but expeditious way. He has been reluctant to commit to large-scale public action in Syria on the grounds of prudence: The calculus of costs and benefits is not at all clear to him or to his advisers.
In the meantime, he is reorienting our foreign policy toward a surging Asia and concentrating on rebuilding the American economy. (We also should be paying more attention to Latin America, but that’s another story.) The appointments of Hagel and of John Kerry as secretary of state could have the additional benefit of strengthening our ties to Europe. The personal histories of both, as Financial Times columnist Philip Stevens observed last week, show they have “Atlanticism in their blood.”
None of this is about retreat, decline or isolationism. It’s an approach rooted in realism about the true sources of American power and the urgency of getting our domestic and economic act together. It’s the view reflected in the well-chosen title of a forthcoming book by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a quintessential realist: “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.”