Should the American Gulliver be tied down?
June 6th, 2014
09:10 AM ET

Should the American Gulliver be tied down?

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.


soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    Tea party patriots will crawl a mile over broken glass just to sniff the tire tracks of the truck that took Sarah Palin's underwear to the laundry.

    June 6, 2014 at 9:16 am |
    • Alfred Hussein

      Haha, that's pretty good. Liberals would drown each other just to sniff an Obama fart bubble in a bathtub.

      June 13, 2014 at 7:29 am |
  2. George patton

    The only reason WW3 never happened is the simple fact the the Russians succeeded in developing the A-bomb in 1949 and the H-bomb in 1953. This alone has prevented the U.S., Great Britain and France from attacking the Soviet Union which would have been quite likely under some right-wing nut job like Ronald Reagan and not because America has become so powerful. Don't fall for all this right-wing propaganda by Will Marshall above.

    June 6, 2014 at 9:38 am |
    • Portlandtony

      I might add that because of nuclear weapons......North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India, China have maintained their territorial integrity over the years. That's precisely why Iran's development of nuclear a capability is so important to them.

      June 6, 2014 at 1:55 pm |
      • George Patton

        Portlandtony, I have always read your posts. Level headed, good sense until now. You would actually trust Iranian religious extreeemists with the big bomb? You must be nuts.
        I say bomb their bomb facilities asap. And now!

        June 6, 2014 at 2:10 pm |
      • Portlandtony

        @GP My point was not about who "should" possess the bomb! I simply stated "why" they wanted to develop one.

        June 6, 2014 at 2:27 pm |
      • George Patton

        I know what you said. Your perception may be that they want it for the same reason the other nations on your list want it-self defense.
        I say they are liars. They want to destroy Israel and pass on their bomb technology to Al Quida. Then get ready for another 9.11.
        Don't be so naive.

        June 6, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
      • Portlandtony

        90% of Iranians associate themselves with the Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state religion, al Qaeda, on the other hand operates as a network comprising both a multinational, stateless arm, and a fundamentalist "Sunni" movement calling for al-qaeda al-sulbah (a vanguard of the strong). If you "in your infinite wisdom" think that Iran (Shia) is going to give anything to a bunch of Sunni madmen, you'd better read history.
        And as far as attacking the Israelis and risking a massive retaliatory strike from both the US and Israel. Forget it. Iran was most recently attacked by Iraq and lost thousands to poison gas. Right or wrong....they feel they need the nuclear deterrent to prevent a similar attack from another Sunni state...Say the Saudis......OBTW....Most anti Israeli and US talk is just political rhetoric and nothing more. You gotta have a common "enemy" to galvanize public support.....They are more worried about adjacent Sunni states than us!

        June 6, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
      • George Patton

        We are the common enemy for both groups.
        Sunnis and Shiites. Hellooooooo.

        June 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
      • Portlandtony

        That's a big hate you have: 1.5 billion Muslims.......Next time we should invade the Vatican?

        June 7, 2014 at 6:48 pm |
    • Frank Anderson

      Thank you, George p atton (9:38). You nailed it good!!!

      June 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm |
    • Frank Anderson

      Sorry George for my misprint of your last name. I meant to print "patton", not "p atton". I see some joker on this web page mimicking a lot of people here. Too bad some nut tries to spoil it for the rest of us.

      June 6, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
    • daytonaluke

      You called President Reagan a nut job. Shame on you.

      June 11, 2014 at 5:24 pm |
  3. George Patton

    Please disregard the above. I did not post that stupid comment.
    The reason WW III never occurred is because of American presence world wide. We police it, we control it, we stop aggressiveness. We are the Land of the free.

    June 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
    • Portlandtony

      I liked your doppelgänger's reply better.

      June 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Good grief, CNN really should do something about that little troll @ 9:38, George. Such mumble jumble. He must be a major fan of Sarah Palin. The audacity!
    This clown has to go. It's as simple as that!

    June 6, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
    • Dan

      Why? Because you don't like what he said?

      June 10, 2014 at 8:21 am |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Good afternoon George and Joseph. Sadly the 9:38 joker continues to upsurge our names.
    The "global prosperity" is also due in part to capitalism, an American way of life. And of course we are not in decline. All the talk about America going down like Rome is a bunch of horse dump!
    We are heading toward being an energy independent country too.
    Let's keep those drones coming, printing money, and most of all spying." Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

    June 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      No, really, folks, let"s all just keep reciting the Good New Mantra, "Capitalist Bad, Capitalist Bad," and everything will be as planned.
      Also acceptable is the user-friendly FolksTalk translation, "Capitaliss Baa, Capitaliss Baa."

      June 7, 2014 at 10:30 am |
  6. rupert

    I hate it when I order a salad with 1000 island dressing. They bring you an awesome green beautiful salad, but then you have to keep asking for those teeny weeny cups of salad dressing.
    I go out with my girlfriend dazzle, and she feels the same. She's a shrink, u know.

    June 6, 2014 at 2:22 pm |
  7. rupert

    Dazzle is thin and small. Very flexible. What do we do in the bedroom?
    Well, I won't tell,but u can use your imagination.

    June 6, 2014 at 2:27 pm |
  8. chri§§y

    Lol @ rupert! Your new user name should be King of Crap because you sure are!!!!

    June 6, 2014 at 2:53 pm |
  9. dazzle

    @chrissy. What's the matter? You jealous!??

    June 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  10. Peter mabas

    Why War? Instead of peace, unfortunately we live in a world where some people kill for fun and pleasure or religion, may GOD have mercy on humanity, bcoz on our on we are bound to destroy one and other nothing more.

    June 6, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
    • Frank Anderson

      Thank you, Peter. I agree.

      June 6, 2014 at 5:06 pm |
  11. THORN

    I don't know but with the internet and all the recent reporting it may be that folks are finally getting a clue about what we've been up to over the past 60 or 70 years with regards to our "foreign policy". The despots we've supported from Marcos to Idi and in between, the Pinochet business, Central America, and all the rest, you know, I think people may be getting wise to our bull sh-t and are sick to death with it. We have as corrupt a government, as badly served a people as anyone or anywhere on the planet. We're 17+ trillion in debt, what's the plan? Anybody out there know what we do with that?

    June 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
  12. chri§§y

    Lol @ dazzle...its the preview for his new movie – Fantasyville Horror! Lmao

    June 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm |
    • dazzle

      @chrissy, it never ends. Whenever I see the ugly troll icon, I know.

      June 6, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
  13. chri§§y

    Lmao @ dazzle did you read his latest explanation about that? Not only has someone hijacked HIS name but theyve hijacked his icon also lmao!

    June 6, 2014 at 11:07 pm |
  14. Debbie

    I wonder if we will ever achieve world peace for just one month. It would be wonderful.

    June 7, 2014 at 12:07 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      I fully agree, Debbie. Unfortunately, Obama and his henchmen want to take full control of Ukraine at almost any cost, no matter how many people die in the process.

      June 7, 2014 at 8:42 am |
  15. J.R.

    Well looks like poor old chrissy finally is able to sleep. How nice. Sure am glad her side kick, banasy hasn't been around. They both reek of a rotting sewer line. Maybe you can pleasure me, chrissy, by taking a break from these blogs. It would sure give me a vacation, you skunk.
    Sleep well honey.

    June 7, 2014 at 12:29 am |
    • banasy©

      I see you have kept up your daily regimen of swimming in Massengill.

      June 7, 2014 at 2:01 pm |
  16. Debbie

    OMG...why would anyone post such a mean comment to another human being? I don't understand J.R. That wasn't nice at all.
    Thank you Joey. I guess we have that in common..we simply do not care for war...

    June 7, 2014 at 10:05 am |
  17. chri§§y

    Lol @ Debbie just ignore him. He only posts that kinda crap to get attention. That and he is mentally unstable.

    June 7, 2014 at 10:09 am |
  18. chri§§y

    Lol and he cant figure out why all his girlfriends have dumped him?? Go figure huh? It would have nothing to do with the disgusting way he treats and talks to women right? Lmao

    June 7, 2014 at 10:13 am |
  19. Debbie

    I'm sorry chrissy, but there really is no excuse for such rude behavior...If I may, please allow me to apologize for such a mean spirited man. I am sorry that someone insulted you...
    If he is mentally unstable, he really should get some help and stay off the internet...
    I'm sorry J.R. It just isn't normal to treat people in such a manner...

    June 7, 2014 at 10:21 am |
  20. chri§§y

    Lol thank you @ Debbie youre right there is no excuse. And i shouldnt have insulted the mentally unstable by lumping him in that category! Also ive gotten used to his disgusting behavior because he has been trolling these blogs for years! And has treated myself and other females like crap during the entire time! Easier to ignore him.

    June 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
  21. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Do not tie the USA down or up.

    June 7, 2014 at 6:33 pm |
  22. j. von hettlingen

    The "current international system" is the product of "Pax Americana". The US has used its military and economic supremacy to promote a world order, marked by stability and the rule of law. It has kept peace and spread prosperity since WW II. But the US increasingly lacks the will and the power as well as resources to play this role.
    Obama has realised the limits of America’s power to impose a global order by force. So he tries to lead "from behind", like a crisis manager.

    June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm |
    • greg

      Please., j. von hettlingen, do quit touting our bullying the rest of the world. It makes you sound like another right-wing fanatic!

      June 11, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
  23. Gary Canada

    I would rather have the USA be dominant in the world's affairs than have Russia or China be dominant. The US isn't perfect, but its much more preferable than the others.

    June 11, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • greg

      Another idiotic comment from an ignorant Tea Partier! What stupidity!

      June 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm |
  24. tim

    The United States will be better off when the Progressive Left Gulliver is tied down and given, figuratively, the ISIS treatment for the dreadful domestic policy they are implementing.

    Then we'll deal with their haughty and failed foreign policy.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm |
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