Time to Bring the Troops Home
The Biden administration begins a military “posture review.” A quick look around the world shows how badly our posture needs revision.
A new president, a new policy review. Such is the way of Washington. The Biden Defense Department announced a “global posture review,” that is, a reassessment as to how much of the world the U.S. military plans to occupy, with or without other nations’ consent, in coming years.
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby put a positive spin on the exercise, explaining that “This review will help inform the secretary’s advice to the commander-in-chief about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of our national interests.” However, this presumes that America’s political and military leaders have a reasonable and rational understanding of U.S. national interests. Unfortunately, that has been absent for years.
Today foreign policy is dominated by a bipartisan clique which believes that America’s default position should be to intervene. In this view, the U.S. is a geopolitical Vestal Virgin, possessing the world’s conscience and determined to eliminate evil and redeem sinners worldwide. As Madeleine Albright once declared, America stands taller and thus sees further. So it is entitled to run the world—with brutal military force, if necessary.
Globe-spanning military deployments, like today, naturally follow this philosophy. The Defense Department believes it should station troops wherever they are welcome, and often where they are not. Naturally, the wishes of other nations are ultimately irrelevant; their duty is to obey their betters in Washington. The U.S. might go through a pretense of “consultation,” since it is sometimes necessary to pacify the “natives,” as it were, but even formal alliances are never equal partnerships.
If the Biden administration undertakes its review with this philosophy, it shouldn’t waste its time or the taxpayers’ money. After intensive study the Pentagon would likely announce that more forces are needed in Europe to contain Russia, more forces are needed in Asia to contain China, more forces are needed in the Middle East to contain Iran, more forces are needed in Central Asia to contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda, more forces are needed in Africa to contain ISIS, and more forces are needed everywhere else just to be sure.
In contrast, imagine a rethinking of U.S. military deployments with the recognition that Washington’s highest duty is to protect the American people—their lives, lands, and liberties. Verboten would be using war and the threat of war to engage in international social engineering, make the world safe for absolute monarchy, join random civil wars, launch ivory tower crusades, seek commercial advantages, remake foreign societies, provide defense welfare to wealthy countries, subcontract policy to favored foreign clients, and buy off domestic interests.
Despite the hysterical rhetoric that fills Washington—we are living at the most dangerous moment of human history, probably the most fearsome time in the entire cosmos, now and forever into the future, and maybe even worse!—the U.S. is far more secure today than it has been throughout most of its history. America starts with an extraordinarily advantageous geographical position. Relative isolation, with oceans east and west and pacific neighbors north and south, still matters. As the world’s dominant nation and sole superpower, with the largest economy, most pervasive culture, and strongest military, the U.S. faces few serious threats. America is allied with most of the world’s wealthy industrialized states, more to their advantage than ours.
As a result, little that happens overseas matters much to the U.S. Of course, America has “interests” galore, but few are important, let alone vital. Most other countries could be disrupted or conquered and Americans would barely notice. Consider Afghanistan. Central Asia is as far from the U.S. as one can imagine, and is bounded by Russia, China, Iran, India, and Pakistan. There is no more ludicrous location on earth for Washington to fight an endless war, especially for the purpose of creating a Western-style democracy and strong central government where they never before existed. This reality doesn’t diminish the human tragedy there, but the U.S. government has only limited ability to right the world’s wrongs. Indeed, the last two decades showcased how promiscuous war-making is likely to have anything but humanitarian results.
Particularly important is recognition that most of what Washington officials count as “threats” do not endanger America, but rather allied states. China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia dominate the Pentagon’s naughty list. All are bad regimes but none of them is going to attack the U.S. Protecting allies should be a means to promote American security, not an end in itself.
For instance, Beijing’s objective is to prevent the U.S. military from dominating its territory and adjoining waters. In essence, China wants its own Monroe Doctrine, keeping Washington out of Beijing’s affairs. No Chinese naval task force will be descending upon Honolulu or Los Angeles. If there is war between China and America, it will be in Asia, not the Western Hemisphere. As for America’s allies, they could do far more. Japan worries about its control over the Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, but spends just one percent of its GDP on defense. The Philippines makes even less pretense of arming itself, preferring to rely ostentatiously on Washington.
Tehran is no threat to Americans. Its armed forces are antiquated and military outlays are a rounding error in the Pentagon’s budget. Instead, Iran relies on missiles and proxy forces for its defense. In fact, it has much to fear, having suffered a coup backed by the U.S. and United Kingdom and been invaded by Iraq with American backing. Tehran now faces a Sunni coalition armed by Washington; a regional superpower, Israel, supported by Washington; and endless threats of military action by Washington. Indeed, the recent rapprochement between Israel and several Arab states is developing an obvious coalition to counterbalance Iran without American involvement.
Similarly, North Korea threatens the U.S. only because the latter’s military forces are over there. Pyongyang understands Washington’s power to do damage and has no interest in war with America. Which is why the Kim regime wants nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack. As for South Korea, it enjoys a 50-1 economic advantage and 2-1 population advantage over the North. The former is well able to defend itself.
The Soviet Union is gone. Russia is but a pale replacement. What remains, after the Russian Federation’s revival under Vladimir Putin, is a pre-1914 great power which wants international respect, border security, and regional predominance. In fact, Russia, too, desires its own Monroe Doctrine.
Moscow certainly has no interest in war with America. Indeed, the U.S. and Russia have no dispute over critical interests, like territory; Syria and even Ukraine are but peripheral interests for Washington. As for Europe, the continent enjoys a vast economic and population advantage over Moscow. Today Russia’s economy is about the same size as Italy’s. Europe lags on military spending because it doubts the threat and relies on America, not because it lacks the necessary resources.
Seeing this world clearly, where should U.S. forces be deployed? To start, there should be fewer of them, especially army divisions. There is no good reason for Washington to promise to defend its prosperous, populous cousins across the pond. Certainly, America need not field an army to protect manpower-rich Europe. The same goes for South Korea. All these once war-ravaged allies have recovered. They now should do what serious nations once did: provide for their own defense.
Washington should also stop entering other nations’ endless civil wars—Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen—and engaging in endless nation-building, as in Afghanistan. Cutting back these misadventures and similar future commitments would allow the U.S. to further reduce force structure and military outlays.
As for deployment of its remaining forces, Washington should transform alliances in which America does the heavy lifting to cooperative relationships where countries work together toward common security ends. That means access to essential facilities with skeletal crews, rather than an extravagant network of hundreds of bases with tens of thousands of combat personnel.
Such should surely be the case in Europe and the Middle East. And in Asia too. Although in the latter the threat to America’s friends is greater, China has demonstrated little interest in regional conquest. Rather, Beijing seeks predominant influence, control of contested territories, and the ability to prevent U.S. military intervention against its interests. Washington should focus on ensuring the independence of its friends and empowering them with anti-access/area-denial capabilities similar to those being deployed by China against American forces.
The result of such a policy would be a radically shrunken “global posture.” But one focused much more on the interests of the American people. Joe Biden has spent a half century promoting the U.S. as a perpetually interventionist power. In today’s world that approach fails to safeguard core American interests. Nor is promiscuous war-making affordable, given Washington’s rapidly rising debts and expanding domestic responsibilities.
President Biden should use the ongoing Pentagon review to begin charting a new course. In substance rather than rhetoric he could become the first modern president to truly put America first.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.