America is rushing to war with Iraq, but whether this represents the new rule of preemption or an exception to the older doctrine of containment remains unclear. In either case, a serious debate over U.S. foreign policy is long overdue.

Hoping to spark such a discussion is Edward Olsen, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and former State Department analyst. Though America may be the world’s sole superpower, ready for war in Iraq, Olsen argues, today is a moment to disengage not dominate.

Olsen reaches back to the Cold War, whenWashington’s goals were obviously worthy, to criticize U.S. policy. But over time, he complains, “those goals were profoundly distorted.” Not only was there a disproportionate emphasis on military strategies, but “maintenance of alliances and protection of allies became more important than the focus on why Americans require allies.” In short, the means became the end.

Yet for the five decades following World War II, “with the major exception of U.S.-Canadian relations there has never been a military situation where one can argue convincingly that any of these other allies were truly essential to the territorial national security of the United States.” Of course, Washington was concerned that such countries not lean against America. “But the predominant reason the United States valued them as ‘allies’ over the longer term stemmed from the residual psychology of World War II. Allies were deemed to be an intrinsic good. They had axiomatic value that did not have to be proven.”

This profoundly important point is relevant today. Even if the alliances were needed during the Cold War, they are not needed now. America stands astride the globe as a colossus; Washington is allied with every major industrialized country, and its adversaries are a small band of dispirited wrecks. Writes Olsen: “Most of the ‘enemies’ confronting the United States today are the product of an overactive imagination coupled with bureaucratic creativity.”

The result is costly hubris. In dominating the globe as did Rome, Washington thought it could act without consequence. Back Israel against the Palestinians. Intervene in a civil war in Lebanon. Arrest warlords and fix a failed state in Somalia. Invade Haiti. Successively back Iraq against Iran and Kuwait against Iraq in the Gulf. Buttress the Saudi dictatorship. Take sides in a series of civil wars in the Balkans. Attempt to dictate to nations around the globe policies ranging from nonproliferation to trade.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 proved that America was not invulnerable. And in a world in which China and India become more powerful, Europe grows apart, and other states rise, the U.S. might find itself facing unusual constraints in the future. In short, writes Olsen, Washington’s current military posture “is extravagant, imprudent and gratuitously risky.”

Alas, Washington’s policy today is dominated by those who glory in such extravagance, imprudence, and risk. Indeed, every setback only causes them to push for more. Hike military spending by tens or hundreds of billions annually. Initiate war against Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and whoever else resists American instructions. Police civil wars, social disorders, and ethnic discord wherever they occur.

And today it is conservatives who are leading the campaign to turn the U.S. into a new imperial power. Despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, and hegemonic communism, Republicans maintain a barrage of criticism for any cut in military outlays.

However, notes Olsen, “Such knee-jerk conservative responses are entirely predictable and thoroughly unwarranted. They are the residue of Cold War-style thinking. There was nothing wrong with post-Cold War defense cuts, but they should have been paired with mission cuts.”

With both liberals and conservatives committed to international social engineering, Olsen takes on the critical opposition role. He offers an alternative of non-intervention, though he refuses to flinch at the many terms of opprobrium tossed by the other side: neo-isolationism, Fortress America, and the like. At its core, Olsen’s policy prescription is to defend the U.S., not its allies. The allies are not important for America’s security; moreover, they do nothing to defend America.

Although Olsen does not directly enter the debate over Iraq, it offers dramatic confirmation of his critique: despite Washington’s claim that the regime of Saddam Hussein threatens vital interests, only Great Britain backs America with any enthusiasm, and its military aid will be marginal. Others range from wary reluctance to hostile opposition. President Bush has been reduced to asking the new NATO members, such as Latvia, to help depose Saddam Hussein.

And it is here that Olsen poses his most significant challenge. Today’s policymakers simply assume the value of one-way defense guarantees for a host of populous and prosperous states. These commitments are constantly being increased through NATO’s expansion—the alliance’s new members have no serious military capabilities but many controversies that could incite conflict.

New ties in East Asia could have the same deleterious security impact for America. As he aptly writes, “It may be better to fight wars on someone else’s turf than on our own, but it is far better not to fight or deter them on their soil at all, if Americans are confident that the United States will not be forced to wage war on U.S. territory.”

Olsen is not merely interested in theory. Much of his book is devoted to how to put into effect “a grand exit strategy.” His most tangential recommendations are the most dubious—instituting universal military training, for instance, even as he would shrink the military; and continued foreign aid, even though experience has demonstrated that it offers few benefits to anyone other than elites in donor agencies and recipient states.

Very helpful is his extended discussion, region by region, of how to disengage. His objection to NATO expansion is not expansion, but American membership. The alliance should be Europeanized, he argues, and could include Russia. Indeed, he writes, “This would be facilitated were today’s Russian Federation to go the way of the Soviet Union, enabling its European constituent parts to join the European Union and NATO.”

Other alliances are not so simple but could move in the same direction over time. (Olsen, an East Asian specialist, has simultaneously published a short volume on U.S.-Korean relations: Toward Normalizing U.S.-Korea Relations: In Due Course?) Here, too, old alliances are outdated: for instance, South Korea has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of its decrepit northern neighbor. Against what is America defending? Olsen wants “to normalize U.S.-Korea interactions.”

This means North as well as South Korea, a controversial notion at a time when the former has been characterized as a member of the “axis of evil” and has restarted its nuclear program. Yet the North has moved out of hermitic isolation in recent years.

He suggests turning Korea policy over to the Koreas. Particularly important is “modifying the U.S.-ROK alliance in ways that induce far more bilateral equality and reciprocity in the forms of defense burden-sharing and policy decision-sharing.” He foresees eventual American military disengagement. As he puts it: “Although U.S. and Korean citizens have become accustomed to a certain level of entanglement, there are viable alternative means for preserving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula that do not require such a degree of U.S. involvement.”

In sum, the best form of U.S. leadership would be to back off, allowing other countries to confront issues of greatest interest to them. Olsen’s America would no longer treat every international crisis as a U.S. crisis.

He is even willing to take on the “the most entangling quasi-alliance the United States has,” Israel. It obviously does not need American financial aid to defend itself, and the relationship offers no security benefits to the U.S. Given Arab hostility, notes Olsen: “Less obvious, but all too real is the inability of the United States to actually call on Israeli military support or basing access in the event of U.S. involvement in a war elsewhere in the Middle East.” Here, as elsewhere, a supposed American ally is actually a security black hole.

Olsen’s prescription for disengagement undoubtedly seems idiosyncratic in a world where successive U.S. administrations have increased foreign commitments and military spending. Yet he is pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, that the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy—the protection of allies—does not advance American security interests.

He emphasizes that his policy is not one of pacifism. Nor even neutrality à la Switzerland. Rather, he explains, “Maintaining a strong national defense capability and the will to use that capability if the United States is attacked, hardly qualifies as pacifism. It does, however, sharply restrict the definition of what must occur for a war to be deemed a ‘just war’ in the United States’ national interests.”

This is even more important in the world that exists after 9/11. As Olsen observes, “It is a profound commentary about the state of U.S. homeland defense preparedness that U.S. armed forces deployed around the world were far better positioned, trained and funded for the defense of various locations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East than for defending the headquarters of the U.S. armed forces at the Pentagon.” The best way to have prevented those attacks would be “if the main priority for the United States had been true homeland defense.”

In the dozen years since the Cold War ended, defenders of the status quo have managed to preserve most of America’s commitments and forces by chanting the mantra that we continue to live in a dangerous world. But both enemy threats and allied capabilities have changed dramatically. True, advocates of an American imperium have ably used Sept. 11 to advance their ends, including justifying an aggressive war against Iraq, a former U.S. ally contained and constrained for a decade, which has not threatened this nation. Nevertheless, he adds: “In due course, after American demands for retaliation, justice and vengeance are satisfied, it will be feasible for the United States to reconsider what made the world’s sole superpower so vulnerable in terms of homeland defense.”

Olsen’s book presents a potent challenge to those who envision America taking on quasi-imperial powers, and this challenge to the sclerotic status quo demands a response. For, as he warns, “the longer Americans wait and the more Americans dissipate their assets and sovereignty through entangling globalist commitments, the more difficult it will be” to change course.

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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. A former Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute) and Human Resources and Defense Manpower (National Defense University).