The era of expansive American foreign policy is almost over. We will miss itby Tom Streithorst / March 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Ten years ago, on 19th March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq without UN approval and with little sense. The architects of the war expected an easy victory that would reshape the Middle East in line with their desires. The mullahs in Tehran would be overthrown, Palestinians and Israelis would walk hand in hand, the Arab world would become both more democratic and more pro-American. “After Baghdad, Beijing,” quipped one enthusiastic defence intellectual, certain that America’s success in ousting Saddam Hussein would shock and awe other dictators into submitting to its will. It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, historians will come to see the Iraq war as the moment of hubris that finally quenched America’s desire to be the world’s policeman.
For as long as any of us remember, America has been the world’s preeminent military force, confident that it had the power and the right to tell the rest of the world what to do. That confidence is gone. Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that even overwhelming firepower does not guarantee political victory. The neocons overpromised and underdelivered. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defence, President Obama’s decision to “lead from behind” in Libya, America’s scheduled pull-out from Afghanistan, its reluctance to provide lethal aid to rebels in Syria—these tell us that the era of expansive American foreign policy is drawing to a close. As a patriotic American, all I can say is: it’s about time.
Geography is destiny. Pakistan’s paranoia is fed by its proximity to its larger, more developed subcontinental neighbour. Until France and Germany figured out how to share the coal of the Ardennes and the iron of the Ruhr, they kept fighting each other for those resources. Geography has blessed America with the safest location on the planet. The Atlantic to the left, Pacific to the right, Canada above, Mexico below—the US cannot be invaded. Germany could not defeat Britain because it is an island. It could not defeat Russia because it is a continent. America is both. Despite the much advertised threat of terrorist attack, it is as safe from foreign aggression as any place on earth.
Yet the US spends more on “defence” than the rest of the world put together. At one time, it could afford it. And military Keynesianism has considerable appeal. But despite 60 years as the planet’s policeman, Americans, in their heart, remain deeply isolationist. Fewer than half have passports. Even the US military is now tired of foreign adventures. If Americans have to decide between higher taxes, entitlement reform and defence cuts, cutting the military will be most tempting.
A large military and an expansive foreign policy do still have fans. America’s reputation might have suffered from the Iraq war but companies like Halliburton did very well out of it. Supporters of Israel see a strong American military as a bulwark for the Jewish state in a tempestuous Middle East. And for middle-aged males, a mighty army provides a sense of potency lacking from their everyday lives.
But even this group is less committed to an expensive military than it used to be. Democrats assumed the sequester agreement, with its massive cuts to the Pentagon budget, would force war-loving Republicans to compromise. To their dismay, Republican deficit hawks outnumbered Republican defence hawks, and the 8 per cent bite out of the Pentagon budget has been allowed to stand for now.
The notion that America must continue to protect Japan, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan et al becomes ridiculous as those countries keep getting richer and richer. Empire has brought few economic benefits to the American people. The wars of the last decade have taught them that who controls faraway South Waziristan or Diyala province matters little in Indiana.
Sooner than the rest of the world imagines, America is going to withdraw and shift inward. Indeed, in light of its geography and history, the surprising thing is how long it maintained its role as a superpower. George Washington famously advised America to avoid foreign entanglements. In 1916, even in 1940, most Americans wanted to stay out of the World Wars. Until the second world war, having a standing army was anathema. The world has grown used to the Pax Americana. What will happen when it goes away? I suspect America won’t miss it much, but, to its surprise, the rest of the world just might. A more anarchic world and a more timid America is the unlikely legacy of the war.