FrontPage Magazine | 12.10.09 
By Alan W. Dowd

Tomorrow’s historians may look back on this period and label it the “age of retreat.” After all, President Barack Obama has set withdrawal dates for U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, reversed course on missile defense in Eastern Europe and generally embraced a policy of realpolitik over the advance of freedom.  

It began with Obama’s announcement in February that “by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.” In other words, Obama has gazed into the future and determined that, no matter what is happening on the ground, America’s mission will be complete on the summer of 2010—and that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by 2011.

More recently, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” 

Setting aside the notion that “our vital national interest” has an expiration date, it would seem that letting the Taliban know the U.S. military will end its offensive 18 months from now will not make Gen. McChrystal’s mission any easier. But that’s a subject for another essay.

Bookended by the withdrawal announcements on Iraq and Afghanistan was Obama’s retreat on missile defense. When the Polish government heard the news that Obama had decided not to deploy permanent defenses in Eastern Europe against long-range missiles, a spokesperson for Poland’s Ministry of Defense called the decision “catastrophic for Poland”—and understandably so. After all, Poland and the CzechRepublic exposed themselves to Russian ire by agreeing in 2007 to allow U.S. missile-defense bases on their soil. Now that the Obama administration is unilaterally reversing U.S. and NATO policy, these allies are left with questions about where they stand—and Moscow, where everything is viewed through the prism of zero-sum power politics, is left with a sense of victory. This, too, is understandable, given that the administration’s missile-defense reversal has a whiff of quid pro quo. Of course, we are still waiting for the “quo” from Moscow.

We should not overlook Washington’s apparent retreat from freedom’s high ground, either. The sad irony of the president’s cold, muted reaction to the Iranian regime’s brutality during the Twitter Revolution was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his rock-concert speech in Berlin. Now we know the answer.

Contrast America’s withdrawal from leadership with the words—and even the actions—of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

From the very beginning of his presidency, he has called Iran “an outlaw nation.” He has warned that if peace-loving countries don’t close ranks, the consequence will be “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.”

When evidence of a clandestine Iranian nuclear-fuel manufacturing plant came to light in September, it was Sarkozy who challenged America to get serious and take action. Obliquely dismissing Obama’s “dream of a world without nuclear weapons,” he reminded the young president that “we live in a real world, not a virtual world.” With refreshing bluntness, he then detailed the growing dangers in the real world.

“Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions,” he began. “An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009. President Obama, I support the Americans’ outstretched hand. But what did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges, and on top of that, a statement by Iranian leaders proposing to wipe a UN member state off the map.”

For good measure, Sarkozy noted that North Korea’s leaders, like Iran’s, “disregard everything that the international community says, everything,” before concluding with a call to action: “There comes a time when facts are stubborn and decisions must be made.”

France may no longer have the capacity to project power the way it once did—and it certainly cannot match America’s clout or military muscle—but Sarkozy is trying to do his part. He has beefed up French contributions in Afghanistan, dragged France back into full NATO membership and launched a military-modernization program. In May, France opened new air force and naval installations in Abu Dhabi, just across from Iran. Sarkozy says the 500-man base, France’s first permanent base in the Persian Gulf, “is a sign to all that France is participating in the stability of this region of the world.”

So, France is talking tough and acting tough, while the United States is preoccupied with exit strategies. That’s not exactly the change most Americans had in mind.