End of the U.S. empire?

After years of foreign wars and interventions, a new mood of isolationism is sweeping America

End of the empire?

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It took a truck driver from Manchester, N.H., to put the matter succinctly. “Well, I support the U.S. military,” Greg Salts told the arrayed candidates at the Republican presidential debate in the Granite state last month. “But frankly, we’re in debt up to our eyeballs.” Isn’t it time to close some U.S. bases abroad, he asked. A retired navy man named John Brown also wanted to know, “Osama bin Laden is dead. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Isn’t it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?”

Not so long ago, such questions would have come from Democrats and would have been met with charges of disloyalty and taunts of “cutting-and-running” from Republicans. No longer. The Republican presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney, said in that debate, “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”And the Tea Party darling, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, said the U.S. should never have intervened in Libya. “First of all, we were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest,” she declared. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman went even further, calling for a smaller U.S. footprint abroad. “The deployments are mighty expensive,” he said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “We’re going to have to look at the map at some point and reset our level of engagement and our deployments in some corners of the world.”

Welcome to the new U.S. reality. As discussions of national security morph into a debate over spending and debt in a nation still limping out of the Great Recession, questions are being raised about just how big a military America can afford—and what happens if the global cop walks off the job? And they are coming not just from Democrats, whose President is drastically drawing down troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, but also from Republicans who for a decade had rallied around a hawkish view of America’s role in the world.

To appreciate how far the mood has shifted, consider the November 2007 Republican presidential debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., where candidates such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani sought to out-hawk one another and were pressed by voters on whether they would “make a permanent long-term military commitment to the people of Iraq?” Giuliani urged Americans to “stay on the offence” and not to put their “head in the sand,” like their opponents. “You’ve got a Democratic debate and not a single one of those Democratic candidates used the word ‘Islamic terrorism,’ ” he declared. That phrase was used four times in the 2007 GOP debate. In the latest Republican contest, it was not uttered at all.

The accepted wisdom—that since the Reagan years the Republican coalition has been a “three-legged stool” of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks—is being tested. The financial crisis, the Tea Party movement it spawned, a general fatigue with wars, and the national catharsis that came with the demise of Osama bin Laden on May 2, has changed all that. Or at least, that’s what voters are telling the pollsters.

In June, for the first time since 2001, a majority (56 per cent) of Americans said that U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to a poll for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Among Republicans, support for removing U.S. troops as soon as possible rose 12 points from 31 per cent in the previous June.

And the shift went beyond Afghanistan—the number of Americans who want their country to stay out of world affairs has risen dramatically. In 2002, 30 per cent of Americans said that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally.” By this summer that number rose to 46 per cent. Pew has also found a broader blurring of partisan differences about America’s role in the world. For the first time in a decade, as many Republicans (45 per cent) as Democrats (43 per cent) said the United States “should mind its own business internationally.” (Between 2002 and 2005, only about half as many Republicans as Democrats had expressed this view.) A Pew poll in late May also suggests that a majority of Americans—60 per cent—blame the increase in national debt more on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than they do on domestic spending and tax cuts. And 65 per cent support cutting U.S. military commitments as a way to reduce the deficit.

Many Republican activists and commentators began to openly question America’s wars once Barack Obama took office. Last year, when then-GOP chairman Michael Steele criticized the Afghan campaign, he was lambasted by the party’s hawks, such as Bill Kristol and Lynne Cheney, daughter of the former vice-president, who called for his resignation. But other conservatives came to his defence. “Everyone knows it’s not worth the trouble and resources to take a nation of rocks and brigands,” wrote commentator Ann Coulter. The first fissures in the post-George W. Bush GOP were showing.

Fatigue with the war in Afghanistan has been a long time coming, says Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Center for Security Studies at Duke University. “A lot of Republicans had doubts about the war, but were stuck with it because of their president. And a lot of [supportive] Democratic rhetoric on Afghanistan was partisan posturing—a way of being anti-Iraq without being tagged with the peacenik label they’ve been trying to shed. It wasn’t based on a fundamental understanding and commitment to the exercise,” he said.

Afghanistan, however, is just one piece of a broader re-evaluation of America’s role abroad that is beginning to take place. Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, an influential conservative lobby group, is one of a growing number of conservative activists who have called for a “re-think” of foreign policy. “Immediately after 9/11 there was a shutdown of any conversation [about U.S. militarism]—the system was in shock. But does it have to last 10 years?” Norquist asked in an interview. “[In 2001] I was supportive of the idea of hitting the Taliban government because they would not hand over the al-Qaeda guys or even point out where they were hiding. That’s one issue—but it’s another to stick around and try to turn the place into Kansas. When did we sign up for the second part?”

Norquist blamed Republicans who gave Bush “carte blanche” for eight years on foreign policy. “On the centre right, we need a conversation on what would winning look like, what is our goal, what are we trying to do, how much are we willing to spend, what are the options—everything that we as conservatives demand of a new government spending program.” Conservatives are not turning against Bush, he insists. “What you’re now having is not a collective decision that Bush was wrong about everything, and let’s go 180 degrees in the other direction—but it’s ‘tell me where we’re going, talk to me like a citizen,’ ” he says.

The New Hampshire debate was a “fire bell in the night,” according to Pat Buchanan, a former Republican presidential candidate and long-time critic of interventionism. “The days when Republicans stood up and saluted a commander-in-chief as soon as he started bombing a country appear to be over,” he wrote in a column.

Even Sarah Palin, John McCain’s former running mate, parted ways with her hawkish foreign policy advisers and changed her tone. In a speech in May, she assailed nation-building as “a nice idea—in theory.” And, she said, “We can’t fight every war, we can’t undo every injustice in the world.”

Foreign policy is increasingly being viewed through an economic lens. “It’s not that Americans are sitting back and saying we are opposed to foreign engagements or the war in Afghanistan—it’s just that they see they are getting a raw deal,” observes Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank. “When they see services diminishing while spending $120 billion a year [on Afghanistan alone], it has created a fatigue out there with foreign affairs. In the current ferocious battle over spending, everything becomes more scrutinized.”

That includes budgets for the State Department and even the Pentagon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made an impassioned plea for Congress to spare foreign aid and diplomacy as it prepares major spending cuts. “The one per cent of our budget we spend on all diplomacy and development is not what is driving our deficit,” she said in a speech in Washington on July 12. “Not only can we afford to maintain a strong civilian presence, we cannot afford not to.”

But even the Pentagon budget, which has doubled since 2001 and reached the highest level since the Second World War, is on the table for the first time since the Clinton administration. American defence spending is now one-fifth of the federal budget, some US$700 billion a year—about US$530 billion excluding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his 2012 budget proposal, Obama asked Congress for military cuts of US$400 billion over 10 years. According to Mackenzie Eaglen, a defence budget specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, Obama’s proposal is just the starting point as deficit hawks within Congress square off against security hawks. “I meet with members all the time: conservatives, some liberals, libertarians. There is no monolithic position in the Republican caucus on defence—which means the door is open for letting the President take the lead,” says Eaglen. As congressional leaders and Obama negotiate a deal on spending cuts as part of an agreement to raise the limit on government borrowing, “Republicans have drawn only one red line,” notes Eaglen, “and that is no tax increases. By default that means it’s more likely we’ll see serious cuts to defence.”

The cuts will slash not only big-ticket hardware, but troops as well. “Personnel and operations and maintenance consume about 65 per cent of the whole defence budget, so going after weapons systems alone will not reach the $400-billion goal,” says Eaglen. “This means politically sensitive cuts are on the table—things like reducing the size of the Army and Marine Corps.” In addition, she foresees a smaller U.S. military footprint abroad—currently there are roughly 80,000 U.S. troops stationed in places like Germany, Italy and Kuwait. “I certainly see an overseas base closure and pullback as part of a future of defence strategy,” says Eaglen. “There is an increasing skepticism about our presence and infrastructure in Europe.”

Eaglen compares the present moment to the period after the Vietnam War, when the nation had grown weary of counter-insurgency operations. “The service shed its capabilities to do those types of missions,” she said. “There is a sentiment inside Washington—which could easily be wrong, but is nonetheless growing—that America is not going to engage in long wars or lengthy counter-insurgency operations for a while and therefore you can reduce the size of our ground forces.”

Clemons of the New America Foundation says that the U.S. is beginning to question the cost-benefit trade-off of its superpower role for the first time since the end of the Cold War. “The U.S. had become the guarantor of the world,” he says. The U.S. strove to maintain global stability—and reaped the benefits of a globalizing economy. “But now we are continuing to play the role of global cop, pay these expenses, but China is the winner, and other nations—India, Brazil—are reaping the benefits in their own interest. I think Americans feel that the rest of the world is getting a free ride and that this equation is broken.”

So what does this change in attitudes mean for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy—and for America’s allies? For one thing, more pressure on Washington’s friends, says Feaver. The NATO mission in Libya is a case in point: the U.S. limited its role and pressed allies to do more. “Obama would like to see Libya as the model for future missions,” Feaver says. “The U.S. provides niche capabilities, but doesn’t do all the heavy lifting, and when things go rough, the U.S doesn’t ride to the rescue and take over. The U.S. says, ‘You guys got into this, now row harder.’ ”

That was the unvarnished message delivered to NATO partners by recently departed defence secretary Robert Gates in a speech to a Brussels think tank in June: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources…to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.”

Yet despite the isolationist rhetoric and penny-pinching mood, just how much the U.S. should downsize its war machine will be a bitter battle between those who want America to lead by example and those who want to lead by force. In Washington, few observers expect the U.S. to withdraw wholesale from its leadership role. “If the world needs a new military engagement, the U.S. will be more reluctant to take the lead, at least for a while,” says Mac Destler, director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland. But otherwise, it is not willing to give up its status as the world’s military superpower.

Indeed, America accounts for a whopping 43 per cent of the world’s military spending, six times that of its nearest rival, China, according to the April report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The U.S. will continue to have by far the largest, strongest and most capable military. We will continue to pursue a global policy,” says Destler, who specializes in U.S. foreign policy-making. Given America’s unease with China’s growing military and economic power, it’s unlikely the U.S. will turn its back on Asia, for example. A smaller role “could happen in specific African counties—the French in particular have had some interest in playing that role. Otherwise, it’s hard to see. We are going to continue to have a visible military presence in East Asia. Korea will be an area where we continue to have a presence, for example.”

And analysts note that the shift in attitudes among Republicans should not be overstated. Republicans were also critical of president Bill Clinton’s interventions abroad, and while campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush slammed nation-building, while Republican senator Jesse Helms was a stronger critic of foreign aid spending than any Republican today. As with Libya today, Congress voted against authorizing Clinton’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo—but also stopped short of cutting off funds for the operation. “Libya is an issue on which you’ll see wider Republican views,” says Feaver. “It looks more like Kosovo or the humanitarian missions of the 1990s.”

And certainly not all Republicans are ready to break with the Bush approach to foreign affairs. One presidential candidate, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, has been staking out hawkish ground by aligning himself with Bush’s “freedom” agenda. In a foreign policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he shot back at his fellow GOP candidates: “Parts of the Republican party now seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.” And Pawlenty warned, “History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll ever save in a budget line item.”

Regardless of who wins the White House in 2012, allies should not expect drastic changes, says Feaver. That’s because things look different from inside the White House Situation Room. “You are sitting in the White House and seeing problem after problem not resolve itself, and you think, why don’t the Europeans or someone else deal with this?” says Feaver, who served on the National Security Council under both presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

That brings a sense of frustration, he says, “a sense of being obliged, of being dragged into military situations because the problems are getting worse and no one else acts—Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, Iraq—even Libya. The French and British were pushing but said they wouldn’t do it without the U.S.” And so the onus, and the impetus to ultimately intervene, fell to Washington. “The moment Libya shifted from not-going-to-happen to going-to-happen,” Feaver says, “that shift happened in the White House, not in London or Paris.”

And now President Obama, who promised a pullout of combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, is considering leaving as many as 10,000 behind if the Iraqis ask for it. He is running a foreign policy cleaved by the tension between America’s deep desire to disengage—and a fear of losing whatever fragile gains Washington has won with 10 years of blood and treasure. “Even candidates who sound reluctant and anti-interventionist, once they win, are likely to shift into the pattern Obama followed, which is the pattern that Bush followed, and which Bush criticized about Clinton,” says Feaver. “A lot of what Bush did was driven by the constraints of American national security interests—which tends to out-master the administration.”

America may be turning into a humbled, scrimping and scaled-down superpower. But a superpower still.