Gordon Adams writes: We are out of Iraq; we are getting out of Afghanistan; there is no appetite for U.S. military engagement in Syria. What is a guy in uniform to do?
On June 11, Michael Hirsh suggested that the United States has “lost its nerve” internationally. Obama, he argues, has stepped back from the global leadership role and military presence it once had. Many Americans support what Hirsh calls “America’s gradual withdrawal from foreign entanglements” — they want the U.S. military home soon, out of Afghanistan, and definitely not in Syria. Time, as my carpenter up in Maine says, for us to “stop messing around in other people’s business.”
Some commentators think this trend is dangerous. David Barno, a retired Army three-star at the Center for a New American Security, urges the United States to stay globally engaged. Barno, who has overseen some really good research on U.S. defense planning, told Hirsh, “The sour taste [about overseas involvement] is obscuring the fact that American power around the world underwrites the global system and is the guarantor of peace.”
Even Barno, though, is cautious — even self-contradictory — about how deeply the United States should commit itself abroad. As he wrote about Syria, “U.S. interests are far better served by exercising restraint, supporting Syria’s neighbors, and performing a humanitarian role. After 10 years of bloody and inconclusive U.S. involvement in the wars of this region, slipping into another military intervention in this part of the world defies both common sense and broader U.S. vital interests.”
Barno’s objection to American retrenchment, though, is a classic restatement of the dominant view among Washington policymakers about our role in the world: We are the good guys, we keep the peace, we set the framework for the rules, what would the world be like without us? It’s hard to reconcile wariness about intervention with promotion of the U.S. role as the global system administrator. (See Tom Barnett’s website for another classic call for the United States to assume such responsibilities.) Muscle-flexing and caution don’t mix well.
I wouldn’t call this caution isolationism, though — or “neo-isolationism,” as Hirsh does. What is happening is the latest episode in a historic pattern of muscular U.S. engagement, by which we think the military can fix a problem, followed by failure or stalemate (Korean truce, Vietnam loss, Iraq and looming Afghanistan disasters), and ending with reluctance to use the military as the leading edge of American foreign policy.
But be careful here. The decision to pull back on massive engagements of military force does not mean force is not going to be used. It just goes underground. In fact, I would argue that today, the U.S. military is way, way out in front in setting the terms for future U.S. global engagement, and in ways that may not suit our national interests. [Continue reading…]