Somebody is going to have to whisper in President-elect Obama's ear that the unipolar moment has passed and that the United States can no longer afford its informal worldwide empire. Even though the looming economic meltdown will likely be serious-and maybe even cataclysmic-the foreign policy chattering classes of both parties are on autopilot and have not yet abandoned their interventionist consensus. A rude awakening awaits.
Even before the economic crisis hit, the United States was overextended abroad. One measure of that imperial overstretch was that the U.S. accounted for roughly 43 percent of the world's military spending but only 20 percent of the world's GDP. Another indication of that overextension was that even by thinning out troops in Europe and East Asia-where the threat has long gone but the U.S. continues to provide security for very wealthy nations that should be providing it entirely for themselves-the United States military strained to prosecute the two small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq, but the U.S. national security establishment will make that difficult. Despite the reduction of violence to the levels of 2004 (which we thought were horrendous back then), Iraq still teeters on the brink of a full-blown, multi-sided civil war. Apprehension about such conflict will likely compel the U.S. national security elite, in a reprise of the early pre-escalation years of Vietnam, to recommend redefining combat troops as "advisors" so that more can remain in Iraq.
Obama will likely withdraw some forces from Iraq but will send them to the second nation-building quagmire in Afghanistan. During the election campaign, Obama said that he saw Afghanistan as the central front in the war on terror and pledged to augment U.S. forces there. Doubling down in Afghanistan by sending as many as 30,000 additional forces will make the war Obama's. A liberal, Obama had to show during the election campaign that he was no wimp; and to be patriotic nowadays requires pledging allegiance to some military adventure-even if it is making the situation in Southwest Asia more dangerous.
Not only has the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign destabilized Pakistan by pushing the Taliban into that country from Afghanistan, any non-Muslim U.S. occupation of a Muslim land spins up Islamists and has actually fueled the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because Pakistan has nuclear weapons, the rise of militant Islamism is more dangerous than anywhere else.
The "mission creep" in Afghanistan-common to virtually all nation-building escapades-from catching or killing Osama bin Laden to rebuilding Afghan society and undertaking anti-drug operations, has diverted attention from the original purpose of trying to neutralize the perpetrators of 9/11.
And the insurgency in Afghanistan-because of its lower level of development, rougher terrain, rural insurgency, more zealous insurgency, corrupt government, and a sanctuary for Afghan guerrillas in Pakistan-will be a much harder nut to crack than taming down the violence in Iraq.
In all likelihood, Obama, hemmed in by his own campaign rhetoric (in Afghanistan) and the interventionist U.S. national security establishment's perpetual fear of "instability" (in Iraq and the Persian Gulf), will remain mired in two quagmires at a time when the U.S. economy is running up trillions of dollars in deficits and debt.
The bad news is that most waning empires-for example, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union-don't realize that they are declining until it is too late. For example, the French futilely tried to reassert control in Indochina after World War II and failed in bitterly opposing Algeria's independence using armed force; the British, along with the French and Israelis, conducted an ill-fated invasion of Egypt in 1956; and the Soviets became mired in a losing counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The U.S. may very well now be in similar circumstances.
But the good news is that all we have to do is change the way we look at things. If we drop the abnormal, post-World War II military-centric U.S. Empire and go back to the traditional U.S. foreign policy, we can still have much influence in the world, while dramatically cutting costs in money and lives. The founders realized that the United States had the geographic advantage of being on the other side of the world from major conflicts, thus rendering most such dust-ups unimportant to U.S. security. Therefore, dismantling the overseas empire by totally pulling out of Iraq and withdrawing most U.S. forces from Afghanistan, along with bringing home all other U.S. foreign-based troops, would save lives and many dollars, which could help spur economic recovery at home. Some intelligence assets, unpiloted vehicles, Special Forces and CIA personnel could remain behind in Afghanistan to try to capture or kill bin Laden and his followers; but blowback terrorism would likely drop if a more humble foreign policy were followed.
A soft landing for a declining empire is better than a hard one. Unfortunately, Obama seems captive to the liberal wing of the interventionist foreign policy establishment, just as George W. Bush was ensnared by the right wing of that same militaristic consensus.