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Since the end of the Cold War, many conservatives have consoled themselves with the thought that, in the end, there was a bipartisan consensus on America’s role in the world, that the commitment to preserving U.S. power was deeply ingrained.
This seemed to be borne out in the behavior of the last two administrations. Bill Clinton and his lieutenants, after much bloviation about “assertive multilateralism” and an initial deference to Europe in the Balkans, in the end assumed a very traditional posture–indeed, Madeleine Albright claimed the United States was the “indispensable nation.”
George W. Bush promised “humility” in the 2000 campaign, and his “Vulcans,” such as Condoleezza Rice, complained loudly of Clintonian “nation building.” Yet, after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq, the Bush team devoted itself to a much more ambitious degree of international social work.
Against this background, and indeed keeping in mind the larger habits of American strategy through the 20th century, it may seem premature to charge that the Obama administration is staging a McGovernesque, come-home-America retreat. But two strong signals indicate that the enthusiasm for global leadership is at a new low.
The most certain trumpet in this regard is the president’s long-term budget plans. Most notable is the decline in defense spending: While the administration is doling out buckets of cash for clunkers, auto and financial industry bailouts, and state government employment, the Pentagon is making “hard choices.” The White House is insisting on a 10-year freeze on military budgets. In practice, this means a 2 percent cut and explains the terminations of big-ticket programs like the F-22 aircraft. The ongoing four-year defense review will produce more cuts.
But Obama’s planning more than the usual “peace dividend”–which would be a disturbing idea anyway, because we’re fighting two wars. The administration’s defense cuts are paired with a tremendous growth in federal debt and entitlements. While military spending is restrained to 3 percent of gross domestic product for a decade, these other costs are unchained, rising to about 22 percent of GDP.
This looks like a major fork in the road in American history. We have, through our history, mobilized our economy to fight our wars, but with nearly a quarter of the economy taken off the table by these mandatory obligations, building an “arsenal of democracy” is going to be much tougher for the future.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has often complained about “next-war-itis,” arguing that commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are more pressing. “We have to win the wars we’re in,” he says. But if the Obama administration is making it harder to fight future conflicts, its willingness to pursue victory now is also in question.
Remarkably, the question being asked is not about Iraq–opposition to which war first helped to propel Obama to prominence in 2007 and 2008–but Afghanistan–candidate Obama’s “good war.” Doubts first surfaced during the administration’s initial “AfPak” strategy review. The current troop “surge” into southern Afghanistan seemed to quell the doubts, and the promotion of dynamic Gen. Stanley McChrystal to be the on-scene commander in Kabul ought to have laid them entirely to rest.
But now that McChrystal has completed his initial assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, and has come to the conclusion that he needs further forces, the administration is wavering. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell announced last week that the assessment has been delayed and, in any case, will not include a request for more troops. This may be simply bureaucratic prevarication while the White House negotiates a number with the commander; Obama has already frustrated those on the Democratic Left who want to get out of Afghanistan. But in the larger pattern of administration behavior, it begs the larger question: Does Obama have the will to win?
Taken together with the long-term defense and budget plans, the doubts mount further. It’s not just Neo-Conspirators like me: The recent Australian defense white paper spoke of a need to “hedge” against the decline of American military presence in the Pacific.
This is not an argument, as made by some in the pundit class, about an inevitable American decline. This is a worry about a choice our president is making–a choice being made with very little discussion of the consequences.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.
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