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For our own sake and the world’s, America must pull back

A nation running trillion-dollar deficits can repair itself at home or it can embark upon crusades abroad. It cannot do both.

US Army troops scanned the area around a burning armored vehicle that struck an improvised explosive device near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010.
US Army troops scanned the area around a burning armored vehicle that struck an improvised explosive device near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010.Reuters

A remarkable reinvigoration of American politics is emerging as an ironic signature of the Trump era.

A new agenda of progressive reform is emerging. The abuses of the Trump presidency are creating a renewed appreciation for the Constitution and the rule of law. The devastation inflicted by the coronavirus is highlighting the need to improve government capacity to respond to unexpected and unforeseen threats. As wildfires and hurricanes increase in fury and frequency, the threat posed by climate change moves to the forefront of American politics. Societal qualities such as resiliency and self-sufficiency are now receiving greater attention. The economic crisis has made it impossible to ignore the defects of neoliberal policies that benefit the rich while condemning others to lives of insecurity and want. And, not least, the Black Lives Matter movement suggests that a collective reckoning with the legacy of American racism may at long last be at hand.

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Yet thus far at least, this embryonic Great Awakening overlooks something critically important to the overall prospects for change. That something is America’s role in the world, which is also badly in need of reevaluation and refurbishment.

Since the end of the Cold War, the prevailing conception of American global leadership has emphasized the never-ending accumulation of armed might along with its promiscuous use. The distinguishing qualities of contemporary US national security policy are the size of the Pentagon budget, the sprawling network of US bases abroad, and Washington’s penchant for armed intervention. No nation on the planet comes anywhere close to the United States in any of these three categories.

The operative answer to the classic question “How much is enough?” is “Can’t say yet — gotta have more.”

The operative answer to the more fundamental question “When can we declare victory?” is “Can’t say yet — gotta keep trying.”

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When you tally up the total costs, the current national security budget exceeds $1 trillion annually. None of the several wars and armed interventions undertaken in the past two decades, with Afghanistan and Iraq the most prominent, has produced a satisfactory outcome. Estimated total spending on those conflicts (so far) is north of $6 trillion. That’s not including thousands of US troops killed and tens of thousands wounded or otherwise bearing the physical, psychological, or emotional scars of combat. The United States has paid a staggering cost for our recent military misadventures.

I submit that there is something wrong with this picture. And yet, with a few honorable exceptions, Washington appears blind to the yawning gap between effort and outcomes.

Neither political party has shown any serious willingness to confront the consequences resulting from the wholesale militarization of US policy, most especially in the Middle East.

American soldiers in Khost, Afghanistan, on Aug. 11, 2011.
American soldiers in Khost, Afghanistan, on Aug. 11, 2011. Kuni Takahashi/NYT

The requirement to “support the troops” somehow morphs into “ask no questions” — at least no questions open to the possibility that we’re not getting much for our money and neither are the troops for their sacrifices.

The response to Trump’s own fumbling efforts to “end endless wars” drives home the point.

The president recently announced his intention to reposition US troops currently stationed in Germany, prompting shrieks of establishment outrage. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah denounced the plan as “a slap in the face at a friend and ally” and “a gift to Russia.” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said the move would be a “self-inflicted wound” to the nation.

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In fact, the president’s attempts to scale back the US military presence abroad have been “stymied at virtually every turn,” the Washington Post reports, so much so that “the overall total of those serving abroad is believed to have slightly increased since Barack Obama left office.” Trump has taken to Twitter to vent his frustration: “I am the only person who can fight for the safety of our troops and bring them home from the ridiculous & costly Endless Wars, and be scorned.”

The reformers who will lead the coming American Great Awakening won’t be taking their cues on US national security policy from someone who has earned their scorn many times over. But on this point they should heed Trump’s judgment: The trajectory of basic US policy since the end of the Cold War has, indeed, been ridiculous and costly.

Confining domestic concerns and foreign policy in separate boxes won’t work. The two are intimately connected. What we do abroad expresses who we imagine ourselves to be as a nation. Ultimately, change at home will require revising the US role abroad. That will entail abandoning the ridiculous and costly claims of American Exceptionalism that have shaped basic US policy since the end of the Cold War, and replacing them with precepts that are less bellicose and more realistic. A better America will be an America less prone to bombing or invading distant lands, engaging in the wholesale punishment of their inhabitants, or functioning as the world’s leading arms merchant.

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What might a less bellicose and more realistic posture look like in practice? The key will be to align commitments with interests, recognizing that US resources are finite and US security concerns are not all equally urgent.

Gas flares burned from pipes aboard an offshore oil platform in the Persian Gulf in 2017.
Gas flares burned from pipes aboard an offshore oil platform in the Persian Gulf in 2017.Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg

Going back as far as the Carter administration, American policymakers have assumed that the Persian Gulf qualifies as a vital US interest. That assumption has cost the American people dearly and is today obsolete, if not simply false. The nation’s prosperity is not dependent on having access to Persian Gulf oil. Rather than expending billions in a vain attempt to direct events in the Gulf, the United States would be better served by expending those billions hastening the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy.

And rather than picking sides in Middle Eastern disputes by arming one side against the other, the United States should reposition itself as an honest broker. Whatever their announced purpose, US policies in the region have for decades fostered instability and promoted violence. Enlightened diplomacy should focus on encouraging mutual coexistence, a challenging task but one arguably more plausible than post-9/11 attempts to spread freedom and democracy at gunpoint.

From a security and an economic perspective, Europe and East Asia do genuinely qualify as vital interests. Yet Europe today is fully capable of defending itself — a tribute to the spectacular success of US policy there since 1945 — and should be nudged to do so. Rather than Trump’s petulant gestures, this implies a phased and deliberate withdrawal of US troops from the continent, giving our allies time to embrace self-reliance.

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As for East Asia, the rush to initiate a new Cold War, with China the designated American adversary, is now well under way. In a recent speech at the Reagan Library, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that “the free world must triumph over this new tyranny.” Citing the events culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pompeo effectively called for the United States and its allies to pursue a strategy of regime change in Beijing. “We know how this goes,” he claimed.

But we don’t know. Allowing antagonism between the United States and China to fester is fraught with military and economic uncertainties. We do know, however, that if a new Cold War defines geopolitics in the 21st century, it will preempt the domestic reforms that progressives hope to undertake after Trump is out of office. A nation running multitrillion-dollar annual deficits can repair itself at home or it can embark upon crusades abroad. It cannot do both.

On the day of his inauguration, Trump told Americans that “the time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.” Since that occasion, Trump himself has delivered plenty of empty talk with little action worthy of the name. Yet his summons was not without merit. The rising generation of reformers intent on changing America won’t succeed unless they also reimagine America’s role in the world.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.”