Two stories on the New York Times' front page (June 3) caught my attention. The first was: "Chaos in Yemen Drives Economy to Edge of Ruin." The second read, "U.S. Warned Credit Rating Could be Cut: Debt Limit Standoff is Risky, Moody's Says."
That gloomy view of the U.S. economy was reinforced by a Wall Street Journal headline (June 1): "Economic Outlook Darkens: Markets Stumble as Factories, Hiring Slow Down; Biggest Drop in Stocks in a Year."
The stories underline a serious dilemma for the United States: can it maintain its huge military commitments abroad at a time when the economy faces the danger of slipping into a double-dip recession? To make the situation worse, America seems dangerously close to defaulting on its national debt because of inaction by Congress.
Many Americans say the answer is to cut the Pentagon's budget and use the funds to reduce federal budget deficits, or spend on domestic priorities. Bringing home the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, they say, could save half a trillion dollars.
The counter argument is presented by outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In a series of recent speeches, Gates, the first defense chief to serve both a Republican and a Democratic president, argues that "we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon." (Gates calls Pentagon cuts a threat to global stability," Washington Post, May 23).
Secretary Gates' worry is that Congress, in its haste to cut President Obama's 2012 budget, will sacrifice troop strength and readiness instead of cutting unneeded and hugely expensive weapons systems and bases that are not needed for the type of warfare that he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff envision for the next twenty years.
The heart of the problem, in my view, is America's unwillingness to face up to the reality that the United States is no longer rich enough and powerful enough to continue to be the world's sheriff, the role it carried for sixty years after World War II.
In some ways, the situation is similar to one that Great Britain found itself in during the 1930s when its economy could not sustain a world-wide imperial role. After 1945, the United States was the only power to emerge from the war with a stronger economy than before, and it chose to take over responsibility for Britain's and France's security roles both in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
If the United States is no longer prepared to sustain a world-wide security role, it needs to establish priorities among the competing claims for the presence of U.S. troops and for economic aid from countries in nearly every sector of the world.
A staring place is to draw a distinction between longer-term priorities and short-term threats that capture the headlines, but may not be truly vital interests.
For example, good relations with China are a long-term, vital U.S. national interest because our security and trade relationships with Japan and South Korea depend on it, as does restraining the erratic behavior of North Korea's despotic regime.
Similarly, the U.S. commitment to Europe's defense remains a vital national interest, even after the continent's security was ensured when the Cold War ended in 1990. Europe today remains a vital trading and investment area for this country, and NATO is the cornerstone of U.S. efforts to project influence in both Central Asia and the Middle East.
With the Cold War's end, the Caribbean Basin, a third long-term vital U.S. interest, is not a security threat, even though Cuba and Venezuela search in vain for allies among world leaders.
The two most important short-term danger areas today are South Asia and the Middle East. The difficult question for policymakers is whether either region is a long-term, vital national interest of the United States. Are these areas where U.S. military forces need to be based?
President Obama has pledged to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next month. The issue here is not whether, but how rapidly to withdraw the 100,000 troops stationed there.
Secretary Gates prefers a gradual drawdown, telling troops in Afghanistan last week that the United States should "keep the military pressure high throughout the year" to force the Taliban to negotiate. Vice President Biden reportedly urges a more rapid withdrawal, a view supported by a majority of Americans in recent opinion polls.
In the Middle East, the top issues are Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's refusal to withdraw from the occupied West Bank territories and Golan Heights.
On Iran, there is a reasonable chance that political and economic pressure from Europe, Russia, and the United States will eventually persuade Tehran to stop short of producing nuclear weapons. On Palestine, however, I doubt that Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership is capable of making peace.
A crucial issue for Barack Obama and Congress is whether the United States should be willing to send its own forces to the West Bank to prevent a new conflict with the Palestinians and possibly the Arab countries. That issue may have to be faced soon.
File last modified on Wednesday, 15-JUN-2011 3:50 PM EST