The American Legion Magazine | 12.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd*
In 2011, in one of his last addresses as defense secretary, Robert Gates worried that the White House
and Congress were contemplating changes to America’s national-security posture
without taking into account the long-term implications. “If we are going to
reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military,” he warned, “people
need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security
of the country…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.”
Four years later, the
consequences of an America with fewer
military resources and a smaller role in the world are coming into focus. The
resulting picture is forcing Americans, though weighed down by the costs of
engagement, to consider the costs of disengagement.
From World War to Cold War
percent of Americans say the United States “should not take the leading role…in
trying to solve international problems.” A 2013 Pew
poll revealed that 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind
its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best
they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
the national mood, President Barack Obama says, “It is time to focus on nation
building here at home.” Interestingly, at the other end of Pennsylvania
Avenue—and the other end of the political spectrum—Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has a
similar view. “Let’s quit building bridges in foreign
countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home,” he declares,
calling for “a foreign policy that is reluctant,” with “less soldiers
stationed overseas and less bases.”
turn inward, this drift toward disengagement, is a natural reaction to a period
of costly global engagement: Since 9/11, the U.S. military has engaged in
significant combat operations and/or sustained new deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq,
Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Djibouti, West Africa, Eastern Europe,
Syria and Yemen. Afghanistan and Iraq alone have claimed 6,846 American lives and
devoured $1.64 trillion.
history reminds us there are also costs to disengagement.
When the Great War exploded,
President Woodrow Wilson pledged to be “neutral in fact as well as in name.” Germany responded with
unrestricted submarine warfare and a secret plan to lure Mexico into an
alliance of treachery. Neutrality and non-engagement had led nearly to
After the war, the American people retreated from the responsibilities of
global leadership for a generation, disengaged from Europe and stayed
out of the world’s way. Then Chamberlain gave us Munich; Hitler gave us another
European war; and Japan gave us Pearl Harbor. Disengagement proved catastrophic.
After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt steered America
into an era of unprecedented global engagement. He
scolded “those Americans who believed that we could live under the illusion of
isolationism” and who “wanted the American eagle to imitate the tactics of the
But America’s transformation from hermit republic to global power
was anything but smooth or certain. In October 1945—just two months after the Missouri steamed into Tokyo Bay—Gen. George
the “disintegration not only of the Armed Forces, but apparently…all
conception of world responsibility,”
warily asking, “Are we already, at this early date,
inviting that same international disrespect that prevailed before this war?”
Stalin would answer
Marshall’s question, gobbling up half of Europe, blockading Berlin and arming
Kim Il-Sung in preparation for his invasion of South Korea.
The U.S. military had taken up
positions in Korea in 1945, but withdrew all combat forces in 1949.Then, in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that Japan, Alaska and the
Philippines fell within America’s “defensive perimeter.” Korea
didn’t. Stalin noticed.
far as the military security in other areas of the Pacific is concerned,” Acheson
explained, “no person can guarantee these areas against military attack.” In
fact, America would guarantee Korea against military attack—at a cost of 38,000
American lives, 103,250 South Korean troops and 2 million civilian casualties.Again, disengagement proved catastrophic, which is why American troops remain
in Korea to this day.
After Vietnam, Washington pulled back, cut back and pursued détente with Moscow in hopes lessening
Cold War tensions. Moscow responded by building up its military; growing more
aggressive, not more accommodating; and expanding its global footprint in
Central America, Africa and Afghanistan.
From Cold War to Hot War
Washington’s interest in Afghanistan declined dramatically after the Red Army was defeated by U.S.-backed fighters.
“As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan,”
Gates recalls.Then the Taliban gave Osama bin Laden a base of operations inside Afghanistan,
and bin Laden gave us 9/11, inexorably drawing the U.S. back in. Yet again, disengagement
carried heavy costs. With America filing toward the exit, and America’s noble
mission in Afghanistan following the same trajectory as Iraq, some observers
worry about history repeating itself. “We have no realistic way
to deal with threats in this region without bases in eastern Afghanistan,” Gen. David
Petraeus recently warned.”
that Americans had grown not only war-weary but increasingly world-weary, Obama
made good on his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, declared
that “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat” in 2013, and invited the
American people “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much
of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” in 2014.
the 2003 invasion of Iraq reminded the American people of the costs of
engagement, the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq would re-remind
them of the costs of disengagement.
every metric, post-surge Iraq was in better shape than pre-surge Iraq, and the
consensus among military commanders was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s
support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge. Even so,
the disengagers viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected,
rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta laments in his memoir Worthy
Fights, the Obama White House was “so eager
to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in
arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
consequences of disengagement were predictable: Without the steadying hand of
the American military, the Maliki government abused its power; sectarian
tensions exploded; the window of opportunity for Iranian mischief widened; al
Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself as ISIS; Baghdad was nearly overrun;Yazidis, Shiites and Christians were
massacred; and ISIS declared
a jihadist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Only Obama’s
eleventh-hour decision to reverse course and redeploy U.S. forces back into
Iraq prevented the country from disintegrating, which would have been a
catastrophe within a catastrophe.
As to turning the page on a decade of war and defeating “core al
Qaeda,” it seems the Obama administration misread the takedown of bin Laden as
a strategic victory rather than a tactical success. Put another way, if the
Bush administration’s “global war on terror” was too broad, the Obama
administration’s war on “core al Qaeda” proved too limited. As a RAND study
concludes, “Using the state of core al Qaeda…as a gauge of the movement’s
strengths (or weaknesses) is increasingly anachronistic” given that “Salafi-jihadist
groups…have started to resurge in North Africa and the Middle East.” For example:
- There are 41 jihadist groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 in 18 countries
- ISIS controls 34,000 square
miles of territory, commands an army larger than Belgium’s and reigns over a population of some 2 million people. Plus, ISIS is
spreading beyond the region, with affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt
and Nigeria. One of those affiliates, Boko
Haram, has carved out its own ISIS-style state in northeastern Nigeria.
of National Intelligence James Clapper recently called 2014 “the most lethal
year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”
Burdens and Boots
disengagers would cite the above litany to argue against getting involved in
foreign problems in the first place—and to argue for a return to the days when
America kept to itself. But the notion that the United States lived, once upon
a time, in blissful isolation is more fiction than fact. True, when the United
States was young and weak, President George
Washington plotted a path of studied nonintervention. But as a trading nation, a maritime nation, a
mission-oriented nation, America was destined to be engaged in the world.
A mere four years after Washington left office, President Thomas
Jefferson launched a war against piracy halfway around the world, setting the
stage for what was to come.
Of the 340-plus “notable deployments of U.S. military forces overseas” tallied
by the Congressional Research Service, 135 occurred before U.S. entry into World War I. In this
light, America’s isolationism during the interwar years looks like an
underlying premise of the American people’s increasingly standoff approach to
the world seems to be that U.S. intervention causes more problems than it solves.
But far from being part of the problem, U.S. boots on
the ground are often part of the solution: U.S. troops have been in Germany and
Japan since 1945, South Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991 and Kosovo since
1999. The common denominator of this diverse group is that each is peaceful,
friendly and stable.
Today, 25 years after rushing to the region to shield Saudi Arabia
from Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops are back in Iraq—defending U.S. interests and
allies, fighting jihadists, buttressing a fragile government, and providing
some semblance of stability amid the chaos. Such is the burden of being a
superpower with a conscience.
Chaos and Conflict
While engagement carries costs—sometimes great costs—it can yield great returns.
U.S. engagement pushed the nation’s borders to the Pacific in the 1800s; elevated
America’s global position in the early 1900s; turned the tide during World War
I; prevented a return to the Dark Ages during World War II; refashioned Japan
and Germany into liberal democracies during the postwar peace; preserved free
governments and free markets during the Cold War; transformed Europe from an
incubator of world wars into a partnership of peace and prosperity; and for
70-plus years has prevented a return to great-power war, which was the norm between
1745 and 1945.
“The era of American predominance,” as Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution concludes, “has shown that there
is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the
upper hand.”But thanks to a
confluence of factors—Washington’s drift toward disengagement, sequestration’s erosion
of the Armed Forces, the public’s world-weariness—America is dealing away that
upper hand. The U.S. defense budget has fallen from
4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today. If current projections hold,
it will be just 2.8 percent of GDP by 2018-19.The last time America invested less than 3 percent on defense was, ominously,
1940. This is the best way to invite the very worst of possibilities: what
Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.” These once-avoidable
trials of strength are now proliferating: with Moscow in Central Europe and
Syria, with Beijing in the South China Sea and cyberspace, with Tehran in the
Persian Gulf and Iraq.
No matter what the disengagers say, America’s historic role and current
position on the world stage give it a special responsibility to sustain the liberal global order forged after
World War II—an
order that benefits America more than any other nation. The alternative path—the
retreat of American power—leads to the spread of chaos and conflict.
Just look at today’s headlines. As Washington focuses on nation-building at
home and allows sequestration to whittle away at the big stick, China’s
military spending has grown 170 percent the past decade, giving it the
confidence and capability to challenge America’s once-unquestioned primacy in the
Pacific; Russia, in the midst of a 108-percent increase in military spending,
is reversing the settled outcomes of the Cold War; Iran is emerging as a
regional hegemon; Syria has reopened the Pandora’s Box of chemical weapons; ISIS
is erasing international borders and threatening
U.S. allies in Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The post-World War
II order that America built did not emerge by accident and does not endure by
magic. It presupposes U.S. engagement and “requires positive, active effort and
sacrifice,” as Marshall explained in 1945. “Above all it is a continuing
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for 2002-2013and http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-Outlook2014_Feb.pdf
 Wilson Address,
August 20, 1914, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3791.
Roosevelt Fireside Chat, February 23, 1942.
 General of the
Army George C. Marshall, Speech before The New York Herald Tribune Forum,
October 29, 1945.
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on the Defense Perimeter, 1950,” Major
Problems in American Foreign Policy, Third Edition, Thomas Paterson, Ed.,
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World Conflicts, 1988, pp.217-218.
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http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2015/04/10/mansoor-isis-strategy/25587159/ and http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4362 and http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/all-us-troops-to-leave-iraq/2011/10/21/gIQAUyJi3L_story.html and http://www.criticalthreats.org/other/kagan-president-generals-afghanistan-december-12-2011
http://www.globalfirepower.com/active-military-manpower.asp and http://warontherocks.com/2015/02/how-many-fighters-does-the-islamic-state-really-have/ and http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/23/politics/pentagon-isis-casualties-territory/ and Andrew,
Pestano, “Islamic State prepares $2 billion budget, opens bank,” UPI, January
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Marshall, “Responsibility of Victory: Strength of Cooperators Tied to the
Strength of the United States,” delivered before The New York Herald Tribune
Forum, October 29, 1945.