04/22/2014 03:01 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

Projecting Power

Our nation is at a crossroads in history that presents us with many vexing challenges. We have by far the most powerful military in the world - we are the last standing superpower - but there are limits to our power and we need to come to terms with those limits.

All points of the compass are replete with potential trouble spots. Many powerful nations are flexing their muscles in the ancient quest to expand their influence. The Mideast as always is rife with discord. In Asia, China is emerging as a regional power threatening the status quo. Will we continue to champion Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as in years past? The world is watching us carefully to see what comes next and how we will react.

Without question, the American people have grown weary of apparently endless conflict. We have withdrawn our troops from Iraq and may soon vacate Afghanistan as well. But though the American people are clearly in favor of extricating our people from those danger zones, it does not mean they do not care about what happens when we leave. If Iraq disintegrates into anarchy, a distinct possibility, and if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan, another distinct possibility, there will be severe political repercussions on the home front.

Now our vast military machine is facing severe budget cuts that will significantly reduce our ability to respond to trouble spots around the globe. To some extent, I see this as a good thing because we have been much too quick to send our military personnel into quagmires where they must put their lives on the line with little likelihood of success - without even a clear understanding what success would look like. Despite our vast array of powerful weapons, at the end of the day our ability to project power depends on people on the ground. We have been sending the same people back into combat zones time and time again, and we are wearing them down. We need to be much more selective of where and when we commit our people.

Still, there are some truly bad actors out there looking to make mischief and I am not just referring to the Islamic fundamentalists or petty dictators in Africa and elsewhere. Where national leaders have driven their economies into the ditch - such as Iran, Russia, and North Korea - they will be looking for foreign adventures to distract their citizens from their misery. If they perceive that the United States is reducing its military prowess and withdrawing from its global commitments, they will be more tempted to launch international aggression.

What we need is a serious discussion in Washington about the future of our military presence in the world, and a deliberate effort to conform spending to what our military needs -not what politicians need to create jobs for their constituents. In the present environment, it is difficult to imagine such a discussion taking place.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.