Thursday, September 11, 2014

Trope Rope-a-Dope Du Jour: US Pull Back

In an otherwise insightful column about the impact of the war on terror, Scott Gilmore asserts something that absolutely drives me crazy:
Understandably, the United States is pulling back from the world.
If Scott were alone, I could write this off as one bad bon mot, but this is a trope or a meme or something.  That is, it is a recurring theme in much writing about the US.  But it is based on ... air.

What evidence is there that the US is pulling back?  Yes, the US withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011... because the Iraq government would not agree to a continued presence.  Last night I yet again heard the canard that Obama should have kept a residual force in Iraq, but that would have meant defying the sovereign government of Iraq.  Sure, we could have done that, but at what cost?  Yeah.  Yes, the US is leaving Afghanistan, but will have a residual force if the Afghans get resolve their election dispute.  Yes, the US has reduced its presence in Europe, closing some bases and bringing tanks back home. 

So, is that heaps of disengagement?  Or is this mostly a return to the status quo of 2000.  Except for the US forces in Europe, it is mostly returning to situation normal.  It might feel as if the norm is that the US is perpetually at war all over the world, but that is actually not the case.  The US has been engaged and involved around the world since World War II, and most of the changes are about changes in focus and not a reduction of engagement. 

The pivot, now dead thanks to Putin, was an attempt not to withdraw from Europe but to give more responsibility to Europe so that the U.S. could be engaged elsewhere--in Asia to deal with rising China, crazy North Korea, and all of the other problems in that part of the world.  And guess what?  Even with the new efforts to confront Putin and maintain the NATO alliance, the US is still committed to improving its presence in Asia with Marines rotating through Australia, the probability of new bases (or is it old bases) in the Philippines and on and on. 

If pullback is really about American public opinion, this reflects a short memory, as the American public have long wanted to avoid getting involved in the world's wars.  It is why the US was slow to show up in WWI and WWII.  Yes, during the Cold War, the bipartisan consensus supported American involvement, but not really that much enthusiasm for war, especially after Vietnam. 

Here is one figure illustrating the cyclical dynamics of US public opinion:

Note that Americans tend to lose their enthusiasm for international stuff after a major international engagement: Vietnam, Cold War, Gulf War and now.  But to be clear, these swings in public opinion have not led to any real retrenchment.  The US remained engaged in Europe and the Mideast and elsewhere after Vietnam, it engaged in multiple operations in Europe after the end of the Cold War (Bosnia, Kosovo), and it did not flee Iraq or Afghanistan after 2005. And 80% is not significantly different from 78%.

The study of American public opinion and war has tended to use titles like "Pretty Prudent Public" which suggests a people who are wary of the use of force but support it when it seems like a good idea.  If the concern is about the US military not being eager to fight another war, there were articles in the 1990s about the "Reluctant Warriors."

Again, it comes back to evidence: what is the evidence that the US is pulling back?  The defense budget is still far higher than anyone else's and higher than many others combined.  The US still has 10 or 19 aircraft carriers (depending on how you count), which is about 9/18 more than any other country.  The US is buying a new fleet of attack subs, it is buying more planes, and on and on. 

Its diplomats are under-funded as always, but the US has not cut back on the number of embassies in the world (whereas Canada/UK are thinking of sharing space).  The US is engaged in negotiations over the Mideast (which take place and fail on a regular basis), over Iran's nuclear program, over trade, and on and on. 

If this is pull back, retrenchment or the victory of the isolationists, then we have stretched those concepts beyond the breaking point to be utterly meaningless.  People seem to confuse restraint with retrenchment.  Yes, Americans want restraint--we have had enough war especially wars with lousy outcomes.  But restraint does not mean isolationism.  There are lots of ways to engage in international relations without putting troops on the ground.  It would be nice if we do more of that and less of the kinetic stuff.

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