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 alleged perpetrators
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
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.
Eland is Director of the Center
on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant
Editor of The
Independent Review. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa
State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in
national security policy from George Washington University. He has been
Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst
at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and
intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the
House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the
Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books, The Empire
Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting
�Defense� Back into U.S. Defense Policy.