Despite Democratic boasts about President Obama's achievements abroad, when you scan the landscape your pucker factor simply has to edge up:
Iraq, which was unified and mostly peaceful in 2009, is in flames again, and Syria is in even worse shape. The Islamic State has achieved what al-Qaeda never could, controlling territory from which it launches destabilizing attacks in France, Belgium and elsewhere. It is establishing outposts in Afghanistan, Northern Africa and beyond.
Chaos in the Middle East has spun off millions of refugees who have proved so traumatizing to Europe that the continent’s great accomplishment of the past half-century, political union, is in jeopardy. In a stunning violation of post-World War II norms, one European country has invaded and occupied part of another, and no one expects Crimea or eastern Ukraine to be restored anytime soon.
Meanwhile, democracy is in retreat. Repression has intensified inside Russia and China, and both countries are spreading their models of intolerant authoritarianism. Formerly democratic allies such as Turkey and Thailand are moving or have moved into the camp of dictatorships. U.S. engagement has not moderated Iran’s support for terrorism or Cuba’s squelching of dissent. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is advancing.
Add in China's aggressiveness and territorial objectives despite our pivot to the Pacific. (Although we have strengthened ties with allies in Asia and the western Pacific who worry about China's ambitions, so that's to the president's credit.)
And yes, as the author notes, the president has had a change of heart a bit about retreating from leadership by launching Iraq War 2.0 to salvage what we had achieved in Iraq by 2009; and to cancel plans to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year to defend the gains made in Afghanistan after our president's two surges of troops there since 2009.
So sure, as the author says, the president isn't really a total isolationist. But you could say we acted abroad even when we were isolationist between the world wars. So I'm not sure what that defense of the president even means. The president has pulled back from trying to influence what goes on in the world in the apparent belief that our efforts just make things worse rather than better, and that without us things will work out just fine.
That's as close to isolationism in a globalized world as you can get, really.
Clearly, things aren't better as our enemies--whether specific countries or anti-democracy forces generally--gain ground by filling the vacuum.
This development abroad as the president focused on domestic transformation is something that seemed likely to me before 2009 was over:
Saying that foreign policy is a distant second in priorities for this administration might seem an odd thing to say for a president who has traveled abroad so much already.
But it makes sense if you think of the trips abroad as efforts to disengage from foes and retreat a bit by giving our foes what they want in order to buy time to pass domestic legislation.
Understand that when you retreat, it takes a while for an enemy to pursue you and fill the vacuum. And that time it takes for the enemy to re-engage will surely be much quieter.
And if you want to, you can argue that the period of quiet while the enemy approaches is actually "peace." It isn't peace, but you can pretend for a while that it is so you can focus on domestic issues.
Can we still pretend our policies have produced peace? Can we continue to pretend that our policies have transformed enemies into friends?
Despite the partial and small reconsideration of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are still giving our enemies what they want--whether it is Iran, Cuba, or Russia in regard to Syria at least--in the hopes that they'll reset themselves into responsible partners on the right side of history.
Can we pretend that Hillary Clinton, who barely subdued a rebellion by Sanders socialists by posing as the heir to Obama's legacy, is the one to lead the charge to repair this damage?
UPDATE: This article denying that the president is an isolationist who is withdrawing from the world addresses what I noted above. The author says that because we are involved in the world that we aren't really isolationist.
But with a definition of isolationism that seems to define true isolationism as withdrawing all forces to the continental United States (Good luck Hawaii and Alaska! And Guam and Puerto Rico and Samoa and all the other smaller islands.) and closing down most of our embassies and CIA stations abroad, of course what President Obama is doing isn't "isolationist."
But to deny that we are shrinking from confronting our enemies on the theory that things work out better without our involvement is wrong. Perhaps we need another term to describe what is going on because a virtual retreat to the western hemisphere is no longer going to happen regardless of how unsure of our role in the world our president is. This isn't the 1930s and America's position in the modern world is different than it was in the 1930s.
But to argue that we aren't ceding ground abroad to bad actors by a refusal to back allies and oppose foes resolutely is madness.