Michael Gerson: The risks of retreat

Published: March 19, 2013
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— Declining national influence is a choice, and America seems to be making it.

What foreign policy practitioners politely call the “churn” of events is beginning to look more like chaos. Egypt teeters between the establishment of a democracy and the restoration of the caliphate. Syria melts away as an organized state and perhaps as a geographic fact. Iran is on the verge of building the Shiite bomb and igniting a sectarian nuclear arms race. North Korea continues its bold experiment in proliferation and abnormal psychology.

And beneath it all, some large trends: In the Middle East and North Africa, a combination of economic stagnation, a youth bulge and a sense of historical grievance — all the preconditions for radicalism and terrorism. In Asia, the rapid reversal of 250 years of Western economic and technological predominance, which is raising questions about America's future military predominance.

Barring the option of utter despair, these challenges would seem to require expanded, sophisticated American engagement in order to shape an economic and security environment favorable to our long-term interests. Do any of these problems grow easier with time and inattention?

But consider the actual American response: budgetary chaos and military cuts, ideological self-questioning and mixed leadership signals.

The sequestration of the U.S. military budget was a stunning geopolitical development. Defense cuts of this scale and irrationality — shrinking the Marine Corps by 25 percent, reducing the size of the Army by 143,000 soldiers, undermining modernization, training and readiness — were supposed to be unacceptable to Republicans. Until Republicans accepted them with minimal protest. The commander in chief — who supports a different mix of military cuts — did not seem particularly outraged, either. Military leaders are publicly predicting a serious deterioration of American capabilities, and one assumes that allies and enemies are listening as well.

At the same time, American politicians have begun an ideological debate on the country's global role. Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America — with a set of unavoidable global interests — it doesn't work this way. Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position.

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