Editorial page editor, 2000-2021

By nominating a defense secretary committed to shrinking the defense budget and openly entertaining a “zero option” for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Obama is sending a message: His promise to refocus on “nation-building at home” was no campaign slogan. He hopes for a second term with diminished foreign entanglement.

His first-term record was mixed on this score. He delivered some inspiring rhetoric on American leadership. In 2009, he decided to ramp up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Only eight months ago in Kabul, he celebrated shared U.S.-Afghan commitments “to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions.”

“We’re building an enduring partnership,” he vowed, enunciating “a clear message to the Afghan people: As you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

But his ambivalence about making a commitment to Afghanistan was evident in the long and tortured decision-making process that led to the surge and the deadline for withdrawal that accompanied his escalation. And the Afghan decision was followed by a retreat from Iraq and near-total passivity as fighting engulfed Syria, with 60,000 people killed so far.

The impulse to “Come home, America,” as Sen. George McGovern phrased it during his 1972 presidential campaign, is nothing new. Traditionally two philosophies have fueled it. One sees the United States as a moral exemplar but believes we aren’t obliged to solve the world’s problems. The other is skeptical about America’s moral standing to impose its will, believing that more often than not it has used its power to exploit other people on behalf of U.S. corporations or other selfish interests.

Today a third strand entwines those two: a sense, fueled by the deep U.S. recession and China’s rise, that America is a declining and overextended power that can no longer afford to lead as it has in the past.

Those who argue for a more vigorous international role are sometimes caricatured as war-loving and unilateralist when, in fact, an activist stance has been favored by Democrats from Harry Truman to Madeleine Albright and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Colin Powell. It would be no fairer to label them all bellicose neocons than to call Obama a pure isolationist.

The arguments are rarely either/or. Internationalists accept that America can’t solve every problem but say that’s no reason to opt out of all.

They grant that the United States has often bumbled overseas, hurting innocents in the process. But they call the United States “indispensable,” as President Bill Clinton did, because its policing of a liberal, welcoming world order has allowed billions to rise out of poverty and its championing of democratic values has provided cover for people from Poland to South Korea to find their way toward freedom.

They accept the importance of alliances, international law and multilateral institutions but recognize that those institutions have rarely managed to act without U.S. leadership. The engagement they favor is usually not war but support intended to make war less likely, such as training and other forms of aid.

Finally, they agree that America’s relative economic strength is declining, as it has been since the end of World War II. They see that as a positive trend — people in other nations are living better — and one that requires perpetual adjustment in foreign policy.

But they also see that the United States remains better positioned to lead than many Americans, in their discouraged mood, believe.

Before he can become Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel will likely face sharp questioning in his upcoming confirmation hearings. Post columnist David Ignatius says the confirmation battle could serve as a preview of the most important foriegn policy debates of 2013. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Thanks in large part to its openness to immigrants, the United States is far less demographically challenged than many countries in Europe and East Asia, where aging populations will impede innovation and initiative. What’s in doubt in the United States is the political will to solve its fiscal problem, not whether the problem is manageable. Given the strength of the U.S. economy, posting 20,000 or 30,000 troops in Afghanistan even indefinitely would pose no challenge.

That’s not to say it would be smart policy. But there are risks to withdrawal as well as to engagement. Only a few years after the United States turned its back on Rwanda, our leaders felt compelled to apologize and ask themselves how they could have let genocide happen. When America last turned its back on Afghanistan, two decades ago, civil war followed, with al-Qaeda close behind. Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks, the 1990s’ equivalent of drone strikes. America learned on 9/11 how inadequate that response had been.

History will not repeat itself, precisely. But if the United States retreats too quickly and too far, history will reach out to grab us back. It may happen soon, with an Israeli attack on Iran, a Syrian wielding of chemical weapons or — most likely — some calamity we have not foreseen. It may happen after Obama has retired.

Either way, it will give rise, as it did in 2001, to resolutions that, this time, we have learned our lesson — this time, we won’t come home before the job is done.