The Enterprise normally focuses on local rather than international issues, so today's editorial, about big questions in United States foreign policy, is different.
The members of this editorial board feel strongly that our nation should reduce its global military presence. U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, a retired Army colonel who represents New York's 20th Congressional District, said it most succinctly in a Feb. 28 conference call with reporters, when he said several times that the U.S. military should be appropriate for "a republic, not an empire."
Rep. Gibson isn't the only Republican thinking along these lines these days. Inroads by the Tea, Conservative and Libertarian parties, as well as label-defiers like Rep. Gibson, have broken the GOP line open wider for discussion, and that includes its general support of steady military escalation.
Meanwhile, the mostly Democratic crowd that wants to bring all troops home immediately from Afghanistan and Iraq seem quieter than any other time in the 11 years since the invasions began.
On top of the two wars prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, many people forget that the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe, mostly in Germany, and tens of thousands more in Asia, mostly in Japan and Korea. These are leftover bulwarks against Cold War enemies, which we no longer expect to go to war with. Or do we?
That's the question U.S. policy makers need to address. Where in the world would we really intervene in fighting between or within other nations if the U.S. isn't directly affected?
If we felt an obligation to get involved in bloodshed anywhere, wouldn't that be an assertion that we are in charge of the planet? Whether you call it empire, world police or the cost of being the most powerful nation on Earth, it is a relationship in which we assert responsibility for and superiority over other nations. That is not the role the U.S. we know and love has traditionally filled, nor do we think most freedom-loving Americans relish controlling other nations' freedom. That means U.S. military coverage must recede.
This is especially true because of its cost, at a time when the U.S. is groaning under its deficit, worried about its debt and losing its economic superpower lead over China. A big part of that deficit spending is for a military that adopted the War on Terror without leaving the Cold War behind. Imagine if the U.S. had entered World War I or II with a military still set up for the Civil War.
Reorganizing our military to stop spending on things that don't help might make a critical difference in the U.S.'s ability to take care of itself financially.
Yet some in Washington are suggesting the U.S. military intervene in Libya, and President Obama said Friday he isn't ruling it out. But we don't think that kind of call is getting as much traction as it used to in the days of presidents Reagan and Bush. There are several reasons:
It's unnecessary. Americans have seen, in the contrasting cases of Egypt and Iraq, that a nation's own people can rise up, overthrow oppressors and control their destiny more effectively than a foreign force. No, it doesn't always work as quickly and cleanly as it did in Egypt, but as Iraq hopefully taught us, a civil war isn't going to be prevented or even much controlled by U.S. troops standing in the middle.
It's unwanted. Watching the changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya with an observer's perspective is finally convincing Americans that Middle Easterners want to work things out on their own, without Western nations either propping up or helping overthrow their leaders. Americans have identified with these revolutionaries and have a better understanding of their desire for independence and opportunity. We like those things, too, and wouldn't want another nation pulling our strings. India, Chile and Brazil are proving that the old "Third World" label doesn't have to limit them anymore; nations are now freer to rise - unless an empire tries to stop them. The United States we know is not that.
It's costing us a fortune. Americans, in trying to grapple with our nation's immense deficit, are seeing that the cuts being proposed are controversial yet account for a small proportion of federal spending. The bulk is in big-ticket items that so far remain politically untouchable: Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and the military. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone cost us roughly $100 billion a year.
We don't like seeing the waste of people's lives - especially those of our own soldiers - and our nation's resources. It's time for the restructuring Rep. Gibson speaks of, which staunch conservative Pat Buchanan wrote about in a column the Enterprise published Monday.
"Instead of cutting the sinew, bone and muscle of defense, let us first terminate treaty commitments to go to war for nations that have nothing to do with U.S. vital national interests," Buchanan wrote. "U.S. policy should be to tell Europe, Asia, Africa and the Mideast: Your defense is first and foremost your responsibility. You police your own neighborhood. And if there is something you can't handle, give us a call. We may be able to help. Then again, we may not."
The Constitution obligates the federal government to provide for the common defense, but not worldwide offense. Yes, terrorists threaten us, but hopefully Iraq has taught us the danger of pre-emptive war and Afghanistan has taught us that catching terrorists abroad is much more difficult and costly than we were led to believe - that a trillion dollars, thousands of U.S. lives, hundreds of thousands of foreign lives, catastrophic physical destruction and unimaginable trauma endured by millions would do so little to reduce the threat our nation faces from al-Qaida.
Better to have a healthy, peaceful republic that none dare attack but which the vast majority respect than an empire that most fear, grumble about and, eventually, try to overthrow. The U.S. is, to be honest, in between these poles. Most Americans believe we are more like the former, yet there are people worldwide who say we are more like the latter. As a nation born of revolution against the world's most powerful empire at the time, the U.S. must work harder to prove it cherishes freedom and independence as much as it claims.