A reader writes:
I know you are committed to the view that Obama presented us with an opportunity to wind down the American empire. I often sympathize with your point of view, but there are at least a couple problems with it. First of all, I don't think there is any longer a politically significant strain of non-interventionism in the USA. It is still strong enough to create minor presidential candidates like a Ron Paul, but it doesn't have much more life in it than that. Second, do you ever stop and ask yourself what a world would look like without perpetual military engagement by the USA? That line of thinking eventually leads to talk about "acceptable levels of terrorism" and rising Chinese hegemony.
Well the question is whether the attempt to prevent any level of terrorism is achievable at a reasonable cost. I don't think so. Is non-interventionism a non-starter? I'm not so sure. If the neocon stranglehold on the GOP is loosened, American conservatism, in a world without an ideological great power enemy, could return to its more modest foreign policy roots.
Chinese hegemony? I have no problem with China dominating its sphere of influence in the Pacific. China is a great nation and an emerging great power and trying to prevent this natural rise is likely to cause more trouble than it's worth. Better to allow this power to rise, while engaging it economically. Or do we want to handle China the way the great powers handled a rising Germany in the late nineteenth century? The reader continues:
I know the issues are all interlocking and the chains of causality are ultimately too intricate to unwind, but do you really think the USA and the West would be in a better position vis-à-vis Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China, if we followed the course you seem to prefer: complete withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and disengagement from Israel? It often comes across like you're not thinking these issues through, and that your stance is born out of a certain grumpiness. On this issue, you and Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan all align quite nicely, which is odd.
I don't support disengagement from Israel. I support an end to military and economic aid and the pursuit of American interests in the region, as opposed to Israeli ones. That means a two-state solution on American, not Israeli terms. Or a shift toward a more pro-Arab policy (with the hope of an eventual alliance with a democratic Iran).
But the reality is that America is today powerful enough to shape its destiny.
No, the reality is: we're not. We can guide our destiny but we cannot control it and this illusion of mastery is part of the problem. What is happening in the Muslim world is far beyond America's control. It will have to play itself out over time and we will have to accept some blowback as it does. And if you hadn't noticed, America has a debt burden that is historically unprecedented outside a fully mobilized total war and has an economy struggling to stay above water, let alone capable of running and transforming the least governable places on earth indefinitely - because of the chance of a terror attack.
We are not at the mercy of global forces in the way that smaller or less powerful countries are. An "acceptable threat level" is simply different for a man with a stick versus a man with a gun. We have a gun, and it is foolishness to think we wouldn't use it. That is to say, can you really be sure a Faizal Shazad is strictly responding to current American military engagement with the Muslim world? If we called a truce today, and said we're bringing every single US soldier in Muslim lands home today, that these kinds of attempts would stop?
No of course not. But since Shazad says he was motivated by wars that were not going on ten years ago, it does not seem crazy to me to suggest that some of these threats would abate once we remove their proximate cause.
Or isn't their complaint also against globalization, and American commercial strength? After winding down the military empire, shall we give up global trade, too? Also, what happens once we "get off oil" and the Arab oil states are cast into poverty? Do we make massive foreign aid transfers to keep them peaceful?
Oh, please. War is the enemy of trade. And oil has been the enemy of the planet, of democracy and of development in the Arab world. An America that innovated its own energy needs and was thus able to get out of that quicksand in the Middle East would be more prosperous, less hated, and less vulnerable.
I have a neighbor who is a French (yes French) diplomat who spent seven years in Afghanistan, speaks Farsi fluently, and thinks the war in Afghanistan is both necessary and winnable. The Taliban is an army that can be defeated in battle with the appropriate tactics. Right now, we are losing fewer soldiers in Afghanistan relative to the size of the military than we are losing civilians in car accidents relative to the general population. And you know the Vietnam comparison is terrible: the USA lost 30 times as many lives over the same amount of time. Anyway, the military is all-volunteer, and they are the most deadly and highly trained warriors in the world. Why shouldn't they fight, when the costs of doing so are known and relatively low, and the costs of the alternative are unknown but potentially quite high?
Well, yes, that is the real point. If we can expend professional soldiers permanently all over the world with relatively few casualties - but still enormous long-term costs - the engagement may look sustainable indefinitely. Hey, we could even get some of that lithium! But my view is that if this is done to prevent a relatively small risk - a terror attack in the US without WMDs - its costs vastly outweigh its benefits, and is beyond what this country can afford. Even if it can be afforded, the value of the investment seems very offy to me. What if the almost trillion dollars of lost opportunity poured into Iraq had been used to subsidize non-carbon energy this past decade?
I could see the argument if you still subscribe to the Bush-Blair vision of a progressively democratizing world that ushers in an era of peace ... but anyone who still believes that utopianism after the last decade needs his head examined. Maybe in the long, long arc of history, this could work. But why should a near-bankrupt America continue exclusively to shoulder this burden? Especially when its benefits - in Afghanistan, say - will be accrued primarily by others, like China.
Still, I know my premise of an America coming to terms with relative decline is unpopular and, in Washington, heretical. Which is why this conversation is worth continuing.