By Christopher A. Preble
This article appeared on Barron’s on January 31, 2015.
America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. By Bret Stephens Sentinel, 2014, $27.95 288 pages
Recently, the Wall Street Journal, to which Bret Stephens contributes a weekly column, published a series of graphs depicting Americans’ attitudes toward foreign policy. While a slight majority in one poll wanted the U.S. “to remain the world’s only military superpower,” another called on Washington to “pull back from the world stage”: 47% of respondents wanted their government to become less active globally, compared with just 19% favoring more intervention.
This anti-intervention sentiment was on dramatic display in the summer of 2013, when President Barack Obama tried to rally the country to support U.S. military involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. Voices from across the political spectrum supported the president’s call, with Stephens among the most emphatic. “Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria,” Stephens wrote, “his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad,” members of his family, and all vestiges of his regime.
But the American people weren’t buying what the interventionists were selling. Constituents bombarded members of Congress with a simple message: Stay out. Left with little choice, Obama shelved his planned military strikes.
The public’s opposition to meddling in foreign conflicts was informed by the nation-building follies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It deepened after Obama’s ill-fated intervention in Libya, launched on the promise of protecting the people of Benghazi from imminent slaughter at the hands of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. Stephens was pleased that Obama had chosen to topple Gadhafi, and reserved most of his scorn for Republicans who regurgitated “Gadhafi’s talking point about Libya’s rebels being tools of al Qaeda.”
The fact that radical Islamists and al Qaeda sympathizers rampaged through the countryside after the dictator’s death doesn’t seem to register with Stephens. In a tragic irony, in September 2012, a band of these thugs murdered four Americans in Benghazi, including the U.S. ambassador.
In America in Retreat, Stephens contends that the president’s lack of enthusiasm for foreign wars explains the public’s turning away from these wars. Republican Sen. Rand Paul and a handful of willing accomplices on the non-interventionist right are also to blame. Concerted leadership is needed to turn the ship of state around because there is no alternative to the U.S. serving as the world’s policeman. Opposition to burdensome foreign entanglements has a long and rich history in the U.S., Stephens admits, but public sentiment must take a back seat to the wishes of the foreign-policy establishment.
It’s a difficult case to make — and ultimately unpersuasive. At times, the author writes like a man without a country, relying on foreign voices to rally the cause. “It’s just complete chaos,” wails billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy complains to an aide that Obama “is not a leader but a follower.”
These and other allies are at the center of Stephens’ story because he believes that they are, and should continue to be, the focal point of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the U.S. has committed to keeping its allies safe and secure. Although this inevitably means that they will underprovide for their own defense, “America is better served,” Stephens asserts, “by a world of supposed freeloaders than by a world of foreign policy free-lancers.”
It would be too dangerous, he explains, to allow other countries to defend themselves and their interests. Some will botch the job, necessitating costly U.S. intervention later. Others will succeed too well, inevitably unleashing a nuclear arms race that would alter the delicate balance of international relations. Instead, the global cop must continue to walk the “old beat, a reassuring presence in a still-dangerous world,” and persuade the nervous neighbors to, in effect, put away their guns.
Set aside the hubristic assumption that the U.S. government can be relied on to respond to distant threats more wisely and prudently than governments much closer to the problem. More broadly, Stephens is asking U.S. men and women to risk their lives in foreign conflicts, many of which have nothing to do with safeguarding American security.
The author also expects U.S. taxpayers to make financial sacrifices that few seem prepared to make. He calls for sharply increasing “military spending to upwards of 5% of GDP,” but doesn’t seem to appreciate that this amounts to trillions of dollars of additional spending over the next decade. While it’s true that military spending’s share of gross domestic product used to be higher than 5%, that was during the Cold War, when the U.S. was locked in a global struggle with the Soviet Union, and well before soaring entitlement spending threatened to overwhelm the federal budget.
If Stephens is serious about dedicating 5% of the nation’s economy to the Pentagon, nearly double what is called for under current law, cutting other federal spending won’t be enough to make up the difference. He never says whether he would hike taxes, or add to a federal debt that is already out of control, to pay for this global police force. But either way, taxpayer support is not likely. Among the foreign-policy goals that Americans counted as “very important” in The Wall Street Journal poll, “defending our allies’ security” ranked second from the bottom, just one percentage point above “strengthening the United Nations.”
In the post–Cold War era, perhaps the best the author can hope for is that the American people won’t realize that they are being taxed to underwrite the security of others, and that U.S. troops are risking their lives so that others don’t have to. But in the post-Iraq/post-Libya era, it’s more likely that Stephens and others who call for sending the U.S. military to more places, and for an indefinite period of time, will continue to be disappointed.