The American Magazine Online | 8.3.11
By Alan W. Dowd

If the so-called “super-committee” created by the deal to raise the debt limit doesn’t reach agreement on future spending cuts, it would trigger automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion divided evenly between domestic programs and defense. In other words, the Pentagon could have to cough up $600 billion over the coming decade. As The Washington Post reports, “To put that $600 billion in perspective, it’s worth noting that the federal government was already looking at reducing projected spending on national security by about $400 billion over the next 12 years.”

Oddly, President Obama and his tea-party rivals find themselves on the same side of this issue. After all, many tea-party types, focused on the worthwhile goal of shrinking the size of the federal government, seem comfortable with balancing the budget on the back of the military. 

Likewise, the Pentagon was the first place Obama turned when the debt-and-deficit crisis emerged as a political issue. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world,” Obama said in calling for the $400 billion in defense cuts this past April.

Reading between the lines, it seems a smaller military may serve a larger objective for the president, namely an America that is less engaged and less involved in the world.

There will be consequences to this military retrenchment. In fact, we are already seeing glimpses of an America more interested in “nation-building here at home,” as the president describes it, than in fulfilling the global role it has played since World War II.

If you want a preview of such a world, look at Libya.

Whatever your opinion of NATO’s clumsy operation in Libya, one thing is unmistakable: France has led every step of the way. As Obama hemmed and hawed about when and how to intervene, France challenged Western countries to rescue Benghazi, volunteered to lead NATO’s risky air war, recognized Libya’s post-Gaddafi government and, borrowing a page from the Reagan Doctrine, even began arming the rebels.

By the time Obama finally caught up with the French and the Arab League, Libya’s rebels were jarringly chanting, “Bring Bush! Bomb the planes!” Many media outlets, shocked by the inchoate repudiation of Obama, editorialized that the rebels were referring to the elder Bush’s no-fly zone over Iraq, which was put in place in 1991. But it seems unlikely that young Libyans would hearken back to a U.S. policy carried out in another country—20 years ago. Whether they were invoking the elder or younger Bush is beside the point. Either way, they were loudly registering a no-confidence vote in Obama’s lead-from-behind foreign policy.

The Libyan rebels aren’t alone. A report in The Financial Times concludes, grimly but predictably, “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.”

Indeed, the U.S. accounted for about half the planes initially deployed in support of the Libya operation. But the U.S. contribution plummeted after switching to what Obama called “a supporting role.” In fact, when Washington grudgingly agreed to extend operations in early April, after an urgent request from France and Britain, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday”—a bruising metaphor for what passes as American leadership today.

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy bluntly observes, “the bulk of the work” is not being shouldered by America. That’s a first—and not a welcome one for NATO or the Libyan rebels

After four-plus months of leading NATO’s Libya intervention, France—unaccustomed to the burdens of leadership—is showing signs of wear and tear. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, for instance, says it’s time for the rebels to sue for peace—and for NATO to come to grips with failure. “There will be a need to sit around a table,” Longuet says, conceding the possibility of allowing Gaddafi to remain as a figurehead: “He will be in another room in his palace with another title.”

With France starting to float trial balloons suggesting NATO could negotiate a deal with Gaddafi, the U.S. leadership vacuum is painfully obvious. Simple common sense—not to mention common decency—dictates that Gaddafi not be rewarded for his butchery or for flouting the will of the Libyan people and international community. “If he is here,” as one of Gaddafi’s former bodyguards observes, “we will never know peace. You cannot seriously believe he is going to live in a house by the sea as a retired man.”

But this is what happens when America doesn’t lead: The NATO alliance doesn’t work, at least not very well. NATO will likely outlast and ultimately outmuscle Gaddafi. But the record shows that without the U.S. in front, the alliance struggled to oust an isolated, hated, weak dictator with a third-rate army of mercenaries.

We can expect more of the same if the U.S. military—the first and last line of defense for much of the free world, the good cop who always responds when disaster strikes, the bad cop who does the dirty work others can’t or won’t do—is hollowed out.

In one of his last addresses as defense secretary, Robert Gates worried about this very possibility. “If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military,” he said, “people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world, if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.”

In other words, the American people and their allies benefit from the American military’s ability to deter the bad guys, help the victims of dictators and disasters alike, police the world’s toughest neighborhoods—and lead. That comes with a high price tag, to be sure. However, as Gates warned, there is also a price to forgoing that role.