By Will Marshall, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.
Having recently warned of the high costs and limited utility of U.S. military force, President Barack Obama is in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of one of its grandest achievements: the D-Day invasion.
No contradiction there – that America helped win the “good war” obviously doesn’t mean military intervention will always succeed. But Friday’s ceremony is a timely reminder of a paradoxical truth: The long peace the world has enjoyed since World War II is no historical accident. It rests upon the bedrock of America’s willingness to use force not only in the defense of its core national interests, but also to uphold the liberal world order.
Over the past seven decades, there have been no great power wars, the Soviet Union and communism have expired, the community of democracies has grown larger, and unprecedented global prosperity has lifted billions of people out of grinding poverty. Despite terrorism and spasms of ethnic and religious violence, analysts say the number of people dying in conflicts has dropped dramatically since 1945.
On the debit side are the admittedly heavy costs of being a superpower: The hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers killed and maimed in overseas fighting; the diversion of national resources to the military; the Vietnam debacle, intelligence excesses and the torture scandal; Washington’s opportunistic backing of friendly dictators despised by their subjects; and, the spread of anti-American conspiracy mongering.
By any fair accounting, the strategic and moral balance sheet is strongly positive. But what happens to Pax Americana if Americans step back from global leadership? And are U.S. progressives ready to forsake the defense of liberal ideals for a myopic realism that aims only at minimizing risks and avoiding mistakes?
Speaking at West Point last week, Obama sounded an ambivalent note. He assured the cadets that America is not in decline and will continue to play a leading role in world affairs. Yet he also said “the threshold for military action must be higher” when Washington confronts conflicts that don’t pose a direct threat to our country or our allies. The president seems to be engaged in a dialectical debate with himself over how the United States can shape international events without recourse to military action. On the one hand, he says, America is still strong and exceptional. On the other, we’re too quick to reach for the gun and overestimate to extent to which force can help us achieve political goals. To resolve this dilemma, Obama in effect argues that the American Gulliver must tie itself down.
This stance has won plaudits from “realpolitik” advocates who fear altruistic overreaching, and the anti-war left, which reflexively conflates the use of force with imperialism. But it worries progressive internationalists who believe a vigorous defense of liberal values, backed by the credible threat of force, has made the world safer for us and other democracies. And it has left oppressed peoples elsewhere wondering whether the United States can still be counted on to stand up to tyranny and aggression.
At home, though, there’s no doubt that Obama is channeling popular sentiment. Polls show public support for U.S. global engagement has fallen to record lows. As Robert Kagan puts it a trenchant New Republic essay, the public is weary not just of war, but of the Atlas-like exertions of upholding international order. Absent an existential threat, many Americans naturally wonder why the United States can’t just be a “normal” country that looks out for itself and doesn’t get entangled in other peoples’ quarrels.
To retrench, or not to retrench – that is certainly a debate worth having. But the president weakens his case by exaggerating his critics’ appetite for war. No one is proposing “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks” or suggesting the military action should be “the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.”
Between inaction and full-scale invasion lies a full spectrum of military options to give teeth to U.S. diplomacy. The Obama administration, in fact, has forged innovative tools for applying force in ways that don’t require U.S. boots on the ground. This new mode of warfare combines high-tech surveillance and cooperation with foreign intelligence services with drones and special forces capable of pinpoint strikes against enemies around the world. Yet rather than take credit for bolstering the nation’s self-defense and deterrence capabilities, Obama conveys ambivalence about their legal and moral basis.
At West Point, he reiterated his view that the United States should use force only in a multinational coalition when dealing with problems that don’t impinge directly on our national interests. Such a self-denying ordinance might shield us from criticism (though both Iraq and Afghanistan were multinational operations) but would it make our interventions any more successful? The chaos in Libya isn’t encouraging.
Missing from the West Point speech is a new strategic analysis that would justify the president’s desire to raise the bar against using force. The focus is mainly on America’s supposed mistakes and overreactions to terrorism, rather than the threats and attacks that impel us to act in the first place. In the president’s neo-realist narrative, constraining U.S. power takes center stage, and our adversaries appear as bit players.
The president’s instinct – to find new ways for America to lead that don’t overtax our resources, mire us in conventional ground wars, and force us to carry abnormal burdens in perpetuity – is sound. But a doctrine of negation isn’t sufficient. The current international system did not invent itself and cannot sustain itself. If the president wants to impose limits on America’s use of “hard power,” he’ll have to get more specific about what will take its place.