THE BLOG
12/01/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

The American Global Stance as Chuck Hagel Departs

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As the public conversation in America remains preoccupied, as it rightly should, with our ongoing anger at the injustice perpetrated in Ferguson, other issues of equal importance are slipping by without the degree of attention they deserve. The resignation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense is one such issue.

That resignation should have triggered a wide-ranging discussion on the direction of US foreign policy and the adequacy of the Obama administration's response to a seemingly endless series of global crises. In particular, it should have enabled us to explore whether this is the right moment to ramp up US military action abroad, or the right moment to persist in reducing the scale and role of American arms abroad. It should have, but so far -- with only a few notable exceptions -- it has not.

Why? Well, mainly, no doubt, because of the powerful political and industrial interests committed to the ever-expanding role of America abroad. But also partly, I imagine, because of two recent and disturbing developments -- one abroad and one at home -- that are currently getting in the way of any sustained consideration of bringing more American troops home.

One is the recent arrival on the world stage of a particularly horrendous form of Islamic fundamentalism (ISIS), one so grotesque as to regularly behead its captives (including American ones). The second is the mid-term capture of the Senate by the Republicans. The first has created a new threat to less radical Islamic forces in a region long recognized as vital to American interests. The second will strengthen the presence in Washington, D.C., of neo-con Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and so increase rather than reduce demands for further US military activity overseas.

Yet precisely because of the latter, this is exactly the moment to raise in a systematic fashion the following set of critical questions. As Republican pressure grows on a beleaguered president to become even more militarily assertive on a range of global issues from the Ukraine to the Levant, we all need to ask ourselves:

Are we currently even in full control of our own foreign policy in the Middle East, or is policy being driven there by the actions of ISIS just as once it was driven by those of Al Qaeda? By launching air strikes against them, are we not actually playing ISIS's game: winning for them a legitimacy in the region that they would otherwise lack? And even if we are not, how is it that we are once more leading what is at best only a reluctant coalition of the willing, with the US military doing the bulk of the heavy lifting for a group of nations (including Arab ones) whose direct interest in the defeat of radical Islam is far greater than ours, but whose enthusiasm for the fight is so much less evident than our own? And since the current view of the American intelligence agencies is apparently that, even though ISIS is now being attacked by US war planes, it still "poses no immediate threat to the United States," does the current return to extensive bombing-runs over Iraq (and now also over Syria) constitute Barack Obama's own version of a "war of choice"? And if it does, why -- after all that has gone wrong since 9/11 -- are our political leaders still making that kind of choice?

Is that military heavy-lifting actually working, or has US military intervention in the region inadvertently become part of (or a major cause of) the problem that military deployment is supposed to resolve? Military interventions invariably solve fewer problems than the neocons of this world are ever likely to admit. Certainly, two Middle Eastern wars since 9/11 have so far failed to produce long-term political stability in either of the war zones (Afghanistan and Iraq) in which they have been waged. In fact the data sets run the other way: Only last month, the IEP's latest Global Terrorism Index reported that 2013 "saw the highest number of terrorist incidents since 2000" -- less than 1,500 in 2000, nearly 10,000 in 2013 -- with the bulk of the incidents occurring in countries in which the US has recently waged ground wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), a drone campaign (Pakistan) and air-strikes (Syria). It is data like these that then led the Institute to suggest that US foreign policy, far from reducing the incidence of terrorism in the Middle East, is actually "making the problem worse." They have a point, do they not -- one indeed that, if The Guardian report is correct, they may even share with at least some unnamed but heavily involved CIA operatives.

Can the US go on affording the cost of military expenditures of the scale into which we have currently settled, given the attendant domestic problems which are in consequence insufficiently funded or not funded at all? It is not as though the US military is in any way tiny, or that curbing its budgets would somehow leave us vulnerable to stronger opponents abroad. Right now, the United States is responsible for at least 40 percent of total global military spending, and has a military budget larger than that of the next 17 military powers combined (many of whom, of course, are also our allies). This, at a time when our transport infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization, our trade deficit with China is at an all-time high, and we are slipping down a series of key international indicators -- not least those on educational performance --for want of greater spending and renewed investment. We have so far expended $8 trillion on the war on terror, and as we continue to lay out treasure at this unprecedented rate, are we absolutely sure that it is the terrorists we are weakening in the process, rather than ourselves?

Is the US so benign a force globally, and so "indispensable" a nation, as virtually the entirety of our political class continues to insist? And if we are, why is there so much anti-American sentiment among the populations directly exposed to all this benign indispensability? Or are we, like every other major power, ultimately engaged in the pursuit of our own national interest, which only occasionally and accidentally involves us in doing good for others? The post-war reconstruction of West Germany and Japan often figures large in the litany of those convinced that we, and we alone, are the first non-imperial global power; but was that benign reconstruction of former global enemies the exception or the rule? In the wake of so many unsuccessful recent nation-building efforts from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and this side of so many ethically problematic covert operations waged by the CIA, it is a question that needs to be both asked and explored to the full. How benign a global force are we -- or can we ever hope to be -- as we send black-ops teams into at least 76 countries, maintain maybe 1000 military bases overseas, deploy drones over other nation's airspace in both South Asia and Africa, and run a secret "black budget" for US spy agencies of over $52 billion: all this in 2013 alone.

If the answer to any one of the clusters of questions set out above is as negative as some commentators have argued, then should we not consider, at the very least, the phased return of the bulk of US military personnel currently abroad, and the closing down of the vast majority of US overseas bases and covert operations? Is it not time to insist that the European Union pick up prime responsibility for handling expansionist moves by a resurgent Russia into territory that is on Europe's borders but not on ours? Is it not also time to return to the institutions of the international community -- especially to the UN -- prime responsibility for the protection of basic human rights wherever they are challenged; and time for the United States to restore full funding to those international organizations, the better to enable them to perform precisely that protecting role?

And is it not time to recognize -- the horrendous events of 9/11 notwithstanding -- that what has turned most manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism from being a regional irritant into a global one threatening American security at home is the sustained US military presence (and active support for unpopular regimes) in its region of greatest concern: the heart of the Islamic world itself? Beheading Americans certainly required a military response: one that was specific, measured and finite. It did not, of itself, require an open-ended commitment to degrade and ultimately destroy. If anyone needed to respond in that longer-term fashion, it was surely those countries and social forces immediately affected by ISIS. It was not the United States itself -- and certainly not the United States acting to all intents and purposes entirely alone.

As policy-makers in Washington struggle with how best to respond to ISIS, they would do well to remember that the roots of religious and national conflict, across areas of the globe as contested as the Middle East, go back far in time and remain in their modern manifestations immensely complicated phenomena. If any of those conflicts had ever possessed the possibility of a quick fix, that moment was lost long ago: and now cycles of violence -- whether US-initiated or ISIS-driven -- are more likely to feed upon each other, deepening and intensifying the problem to which the violence was an initial response, rather than to offer a quick route to a lasting solution. Policy-makers would also do well to remember that, to the degree that political and religious divisions in an area as complex as the Middle East are accentuated rather than reduced by a sustained US presence in the region, plans to lower that presence, rather than to ratchet it up, need to be in the mix when considering how best to keep America safe from terrorism at home.

It is already one of the ironies of the Obama presidency that a candidate elected on a clear mandate to end the war in Iraq should (as president) not only have escalated the American military presence in Afghanistan before eventually drawing it down, but should also now be engaged in an air-war that covers not just northern Iraq but also Syria. If people elected Barack Obama hoping to see the American military footprint in the Middle East reduced, they must now be sorely disappointed. That footprint is still large, and remains (under this president) open-ended. Vice President Biden even promised an ISIS pursuit "to the gates of hell" if one was needed, and those gates are presumably a long way away. Which is why, both in progressive circles and between the two main parties, the case needs to be made again for a fundamental resetting of American foreign policy into a calmer and less ambitious mold. We need to see created in Washington an overall understanding of American foreign policy that will drop the claim about indispensability and returns us --as even a Washington foreign policy insider like Richard Haass has recently argued -- to a global stance more commensurate with our actual capacities and requirements.

It is time, surely, for a calm conversation about what those capacities and requirements happen to be.

A longer version of this posting, with full sourcing, titled "Taking the Imperial Out of the Role of America Abroad," is at www.davidcoates.net

The argument in both postings are developed more fully in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires: to be published by Palgrave-Macmillan on December 10.