In October 2009, Charles Krauthammer memorably told an audience at the Manhattan Institute that “decline is a choice.” There is, he said, nothing natural about an erosion in the worldwide position and stature of the United States; rather, decline would come about as a result of policy decisions by American leaders: “Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written… Two decades into the unipolar world that came about with the fall of the Soviet Union, America is in the position of deciding whether to abdicate or retain its dominance. Decline—or continued ascendancy—is in our hands.”

In 2009, the Obama administration began to behave in ways that suggested it was not ready to make that choice. Rather than ordering a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq, Obama kept our forces in that theater. Rather than lose in Afghanistan, the president decided on a limited “surge” there.

And throughout 2010 and 2011, more decisions came that indicated continuity with the policies of the hated George W. Bush administration, and even, at times, an expansion of Bush’s supposed unilateralism. The military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay remained open. Invasive drone strikes against targets in Yemen and Pakistan seemed to create a new kind of unilateral approach in the war on terror that Bush’s men had shied away from. And then Seal Team Six was airlifted into Pakistani territory and flown away after killing Osama bin Laden—a clear violation of that nation’s sovereignty in pursuit of an important American national interest.

So while Obama’s anti-exceptionalism rhetoric suggested otherwise, the story was mixed. Until the beginning of January 2012, when the Obama administration at last made it clear that decline was exactly the choice it was making. The decline would not be in foreign-policy ambition, but in American military reach.

No longer would the overarching design of the U.S. military be to give the nation the capacity to fight two wars at once. Instead, the military would be large enough to fight one and serve as a “spoiler” in a second. Over the course of a decade, the Army would be reduced in size by 16 percent. The creation of new weapons systems would be delayed. The Marine Corps would be shrunk as well, though the administration had the good sense not to say by exactly how many Marines, since the Corps is probably the branch most admired by Americans and the one that has the most active and passionate alumni.

The two-war strategy proved its value when the United States actually found itself fighting two wars in the past decade. But there’s the rub. Since Obama and others in his party despised one of those wars and were not all that supportive of the other, it might have seemed as though it would be wise to reduce the size of our forces because that would enforce a limit on the capacity of political leaders to use those forces in the future.

So, rather than making sure the presidents who follow him have as many tools in the drawer as Bush left him, Obama is designing the military to give his successor fewer tools at a time of increasing worldwide instability.

Obama’s new military strategy hasn’t become a national controversy because the president understands the nation is tired and feels broke. For the third time in 40 years, leaders in Washington are spearheading an American retreat with genuine bipartisan support.

Twice before, with the advent of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and after 9/11, the military budget was beefed up after a period of retrenchment. Ronald Reagan had to do it because the decline under Jimmy Carter so emboldened the nation’s adversaries that Iran felt free to take American diplomats hostage (and the mission designed to rescue them proved to be a horrifying disaster) while the Soviet Union felt free to invade Afghanistan and help along Marxist revolution in the Americas. George W. Bush had to do it because our Clinton–era “peace dividend” had suggested to Osama bin Laden that we were the weaker horse.

God help us when it comes to the catastrophe that will compel the next reversal.

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