National Review: The US's Disorganized Retreat As the U.S. leaves Iraq and attempts to ameliorate a global economic crisis, it is also retreating from the world stage. Conrad Black of the National Review argues that the U.S. has missed an important opportunity in not imposing austerity measures similar to those in Europe. As Europe grows stronger, the U.S. will find itself in positions of less and less global importance.
NPR logo National Review: The US's Disorganized Retreat

National Review: The US's Disorganized Retreat

Military helicopters fly over the Green Zone area in Baghdad following a loud explosion early on October 18, 2010. Violence in Iraq has plunged but casualties from insurgent and military action still remain part of daily life. Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

Each week, the world visibly evolves toward a multipolar system, slowly devising new arrangements as traditional multinational structures atrophy. The United Nations is now an almost universal joke. The annual General Assembly meetings are not the draw they were, and the most publicized appearances are by lunatics, such as Ahmadinejad or Gaddafi. Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant were among the most famous men in the world when they were secretary general of the U.N.; even Boutros Boutros-Ghali was taken somewhat seriously. Ban Ki-moon is a trivia question.

Despite the supposed cleanup after the oil-for-food disaster under Kofi Annan, in which Saddam Hussein perfected the art of draping the world body in ridicule and infamy, it is still a corrupt shambles, and the peacekeeping operations, once the stuff of vast hopes and pious intentions, is mainly a hard-currency-raising wheeze for contributing countries, who rent out their forces to the faction-heads they are supposed to be pacifying and have the effect, as in the Congo — the largest peacekeeping operation, involving nearly 30,000 peacekeepers — of escalating and brutalizing the internecine conflict.

NATO, the most successful alliance in world history, the principal enforcer of the containment strategy against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact until those brutal confections of Lenin and Stalin imploded, is in a state of thorough disarray. After the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, the alliance rallied magnificently and, for the first time in its history, invoked the provision in the charter that "an attack upon one is an attack upon all." It was a tremendous manifestation of support for America following immediately upon those monstrous outrages. Suspecting, perhaps not entirely without reason, that part of the motive behind this unexampled solidarity was a desire to influence, i.e. moderate, America's response to the attacks, the George W. Bush administration largely ignored NATO and led the Alliance into Afghanistan, chased out the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar, which had happily tolerated the presence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in the country, and left NATO in Afghanistan with an indefinite mission, milling around, supposedly assisting in the pacification of the country.

In fact, the NATO contingents were left in charge of different areas, thoroughly undermanned and largely uncoordinated. It became a game of skill to opt for a region and engagement strategy that ensured the least casualties. The British, Dutch, and Canadians, along with the Americans, encountered the enemy from time to time, incurring hundreds of dead, but the French and some others hunkered down with a rather unambitious occupation plan. The ostensibly legal government, the beneficiary of a completely discredited election, is a sinkhole of corruption that has alienated some public opinion to the benefit of the honest but fanatical and otherwise detested Taliban.

For seven years, the Bush administration was played for a chump by the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, which pocketed billions of dollars of aid and pledged support against the terrorists, but encouraged large factions of them in Afghanistan and gave them shelter in North-West Pakistan. Pakistan, it now emerges, was intimately involved in the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, and is well aware of bin Laden's presence within Pakistan — not, as was comfortably assumed, hiding for his life in a dank cave, but in a well-appointed house in Waziristan.

President Zardari of Pakistan has been threatened by the commander of the army, General Kayani, and by the Supreme Court, if he does not purge ministers who looted aid money after the catastrophic floods that left nearly 30 million people homeless. (The aid was also distributed in a manner that discriminated against Christian victims, a considerable irritant to the primarily Christian countries, including the United States, that donated most of the assistance.) General Kayani is leading a high-level delegation to Washington this week to finalize the strategic alliance with the U.S., including $7.5 billion of assistance, and these ambiguities will be raised. The special representative for the area, Richard Holbrooke, is certainly well qualified by temperament and experience to try to make some sense out of this Byzantine double-dealing, but the prospects are unclear.

President Obama's early determination not to be fleeced by the Pakistanis as his predecessor was, and not to spend a trillion dollars and stay indefinitely in Afghanistan, is commendable. The Afghanistan commander, General Petraeus, is a skilled negotiator with factional and tribal chieftains, and presumably has a more textured and nuanced plan of action than did his predecessor, General McChrystal, who was disembarked from the armed forces in a quick march after his astonishing interview with Rolling Stone. General Petraeus is assisting in talks with the Taliban toward a settlement with the government of President Karzai, who threatened collaboration with the Taliban when American pressures for a government cleanup became seriously purposeful, early this year. Since President Obama has pledged to start leaving next year, though he is already trying to finesse that, it is not clear to me what incentive the Taliban feels it has to negotiate anything, at least with any level of good faith, especially with continuing support from Pakistan.

In Iraq, eight months after an election he apparently lost, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to have secured a workable coalition by making a pilgrimage to Iran and enduring, with no visible discomfort, a lecture from Ayatollah Khamenei — whose iron-fisted dictatorship, executed through the buffoon Ahmadinejad, becomes more brutal and brazen every week — about how Iraq must rid itself of the Americans. It is not obvious what sort of regime may durably emerge in Iraq after the Americans have left, but it is becoming steadily more doubtful that it will bear much resemblance to anything the 4,000 Americans who died there thought they were trying to establish.

It appears that the U.S. is departing the region fairly soon, undefeated to be sure, and unencumbered with a debacle like Vietnam or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but without having durably accomplished much, and, despite the execution of Saddam Hussein, particularly without having given a believable cautionary warning to mischievous regimes. All indications are that Iran will be a nuclear military power, and bin Laden will still be cutting mouthy videos from his exurban lodgings in Waziristan. It is not clear what the point of it all will have been. Saddam managed to portray President Bush Sr.'s thrashing of him in the Gulf War as a victory; the terrorists may be expected to do the same now.

NATO, since its rally to the Stars and Stripes after Sept. 11, went through the burlesque of "the coalition of the willing," which meant enthusiastic adherence from Britain and Australia and token forces from a ragged collection of other states preoccupied with American goodwill, to its present phase where every member country or pair of countries takes its own initiative. In NATO's traditional European stamping grounds, the French and Russian presidents (Sarkozy and Medvedev) and German chancellor Merkel have been meeting off-season in the gambling and horse-racing resort of Deauville in what is loudly and believably proclaimed not to be an anti-American session, discussing the integration of Russian and NATO defenses opposite rogue nuclear states, especially Iran and North Korea. Russia vehemently opposed the Bush administration's plan for an anti-missile defense against Iran, since reduced to a ship-borne system, and is now interested in joining it on the usual Euro-American basis: U.S. technology and military hardware to protect the Europeans.

The Turks are now proclaiming their vocation for a shared security interest with Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and are gratuitously picking arguments with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu's interception of the Gaza flotilla, though imperfectly executed, looks better every day, and Israel is conducting joint military maneuvers with Turkey's ancient bugbear, the Greeks, offering a new forum for the endless squabbles of these old enemies and ostensible NATO allies.

The well-respected former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar opined last week that President Obama has less interest in Europe than any of his predecessors. It is a potentially hotly contestable question how Euro-oriented Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce were, but the ineluctable fact is that the U.S. will not be strong in the world until it has eliminated its immense budgetary and current-account deficits, which means drastically reducing its oil imports, and has deployable armed forces appropriate to the defense of its interests. Europe is painfully, slowly imposing austerity and stepping back from the fool's paradise of having less than 40 percent of its population working to support the rest, and replacing the unborn with unassimilable, largely Muslim, immigrants. Chancellor Merkel last week declared multiculturalism a failure, and President Sarkozy is bucking widespread strikes as he raises the retirement age, having already increased the work week. Britain, Spain, Greece, Hungary, and Portugal, and even, to a degree, Italy, are self-administering strong social and economic medicine.

After 21 months, the Obama administration's only variation on the prospect of a decade of trillion-dollar deficits, an impossible scenario, is to wait for the debt-reduction commission to report out. The Eurosocialist Tower of Babel has so far vastly outperformed the U.S. in wrestling with the economic crisis. If present trends continue, Europe could actually struggle back to being a serious force in the world. The U.S. fumbled away its opportunity, under Clinton and George W. Bush, to attract Great Britain toward it and away from Europe, and the Europeans are now answering the old siren song of Soviet leaders, and becoming closer to an unthreatening and shrunken Russia.

The U.S. is conducting a more or less orderly retreat, unpunctuated with military disasters, and the American people will not miss their 65-year total immersion in the world any more than the world will be heartbroken to be less dominated by the Americans. But it all has the appearance and feel of a default position, of unplanned, almost inadvertent, feckless retreat, not a serious plan of systematically handing over security matters to carefully prepared indigenous forces. Sensible, strategic withdrawals can be elegant (de Gaulle's from Algeria, the U.S. from the Philippines), disorganized (Britain's from India and Palestine, the USSR's from Poland), or disastrous (Napoleon's from Russia). So far, this one is in the second category, but it is not too late for an upgrade, nor is it a certainty that a rout will be avoided. And of course, it need not be happening at all.