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Shrinking America's Role In the World Is the True Obama Doctrine

After months of mixed messages, President Barack Obama has chosen to draw down to virtually zero troops in Iraq when the deadline for withdrawal expires on December 31. Some will label the decision politics; other will label it ideology. What is clear is that shrinking America’s role in the world is the true Obama doctrine.

Earlier this year, the administration agreed to renegotiate a deal to leave forces in Iraq past 2011. U.S. commanders reportedly asked for at least 10,000 troops to secure Iraq’s hard won peace. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained that remaining "sends a powerful signal to the region," a sentiment shared strongly by his successor, Leon Panetta.

But the Pentagon's assessment was not shared by the president's inner circle of political advisers, who reportedly insisted that no more than 3,000 troops be left on the ground. And even that slimmed down number has been whittled to near nothing. Why?

The president's critics will say this is further proof Mr. Obama is ashamed of American power. Others will say he is simply appeasing his political base. His supporters are quick to point out that Mr. Obama is as willing to use force as any of his predecessors -- witness the demise of Usama bin Laden and an ever-growing number of his senior operatives.

Whether or not the president is actually "ashamed" of American power, it is hard to escape the conclusion he is deeply leery of its exercise. This helps explain the unusual rollout of Mr. Obama's Afghanistan surge strategy in December 2009, where in the same breath he announced an increase in U.S. troops he also promised to begin their withdrawal 18 months later. The merits of the president's counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan can be debated, but under no scenario did signaling withdrawal assist the military mission.

More examples come from Libya, and the Arab Spring more broadly. Far from an unwillingness to commit force, President Obama appeared unwilling to so much as opine regarding the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that exploded in late 2010. And while administration officials have attempted to portray the president's reticence as a deliberate policy of "leading from behind," it can as easily be construed as an unwillingness to lead at all.

It is a stretch to say the fortunes of Muammar Qaddafi are a vital national interest to the United States. Europe is more directly affected, and European states should act accordingly. Nonetheless, both the British and French governments grumbled publicly (and more angrily privately) that the United States was failing to support NATO's efforts in Libya.

And then there's Syria. What might be explained as cautiousness in the case of Qaddafi has been paralysis in the case of confronting Bashir el-Assad over the systematic murder of his citizens. Even staunch supporters of the president -- including the New York Times editorial board -- have criticized Mr. Obama's unwillingness to take a stand against the Syrian dictator. 

Nor was the exercise of hard power in question -- far from it. Even those most eager for the U.S. to stand with the Syrian opposition have not called for any kind of military intervention.

Two years ago, the president was doubtful enough about the application of hard power in Afghanistan to insist upon an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Now, he appears doubtful about even a rhetorical commitment of American leadership.

Mr. Obama is right to be concerned that projection of hard power may come with corresponding costs -- to America's image and its fiscal well-being. What he neglects is the price of failing to lead. 

Indeed, it appears that the president's aim is to withdraw from the world -- to subcontract foreign policy where possible, to ignore challenges if manageable, and to hazard only de minimis American commitment when imperative. Even his heavy reliance on drones -- evidence to his supporters that he well understands hard power -- can as easily be seen as an antiseptic remote control alternative to actual American leadership.

That brings us back to Iraq. While steady security and political gains have been made since 2007, Iraq is not yet ready to stand on its own against external pressure from Iran or internal threats from Al Qaeda and other violent groups. 

Some in the White House will no doubt blame the Iraqis for failing to move quickly enough, as if only Iraqi interests are in play. But the Obama administration's willingness to jettison hard fought gains in Iraq, and abandon opportunities to project power toward Iran and the Gulf can only be viewed as another step toward relinquishing U.S. global leadership. And that, it appears, is Barack Obama's goal.

Danielle Pletka is Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Before joining AEI, she served for ten years as a senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Stuart Gottlieb is a former Senate foreign policy adviser and speechwriter (1999-2003), and teaches U.S. foreign policy and national security at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Danielle Pletka is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at AEI, the American Enterprise Institute.