First, arguments about retreat aren’t really about retreat – they are about policy differences. Take for example, a recent op-ed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in which he outlines growing concern from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king “is convinced the US is unreliable” (this is a familiar synonym for retreat), reported Ignatius, who also notes this view is shared by four other traditional US allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. What do these four countries have in common? They don’t like diplomacy with Iran, US condemnation of the military coup in Egypt or the refusal to go all out to topple Assad. In short, they don’t like the US pursuing its interests in a way that goes against their perceived interests. Or perhaps to put it more bluntly, these are nations that recoil at signs that the US won’t fight their battles for them or allow them to continue to free-ride off US security guarantees. What looks like retreat to them is actually restraint.
Second, it’s politics, stupid. If there is one truism of American foreign policy it is that it is domestic politics by other means. For example, when the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard complains that at a time when America needs a leader who will “sound forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat” it is cursed to have a president who “has a piccolo that only calls retreat”, it is not providing an accurate description of US foreign policy – but that’s hardly the point.
Rather, these are evocative smear words intended to portray Obama (though honestly it would be any Democratic president) as spineless and weak. After all, in the 1950s, Democrats were the party that lost China; in the 1970s, they stabbed America in the back on Vietnam; in the 1980s, they were “blame America firsters”; in the 00s, they were merely “French” in their approach to foreign affairs. (Mental note: send anyone who used this slur a book on the Algerian War.)