There’s an inevitability to the coming decline of US power and influence worldwide, as the American economy shrinks relative to the economic power of other countries, as America’s allies in places like Egypt strike out on their own, and as the size of the US military declines because the United States can no longer afford to spend upwards of $700 billion on defense.
Still, there are those who believe that the United States must maintain, and even increase its spending at the Pentagon, even as more and more Republicans are prepared to throw the military under the bus to save money. Take, for instance, Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, who pens an op-ed in today’s paper titled: “What’s happened to America’s leadership role?” Hiatt, a reliable hawk who’s helped steer the Post into indefensibly pro-defense positions, including support for the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, accuses President Obama of surrendering the US leadership role by refusing to take the lead in battling Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and by backing a modest drawdown in Afghanistan:
“Obama has said it is a strategic imperative to fight the Taliban to a standstill and train an Afghan army that can keep the nation at peace. But then how can it make sense to set a withdrawal schedule irrespective of whether those goals are achieved? The message, again, is that domestic considerations take precedence over global responsibilities.”
More worryingly, Hiatt attacks Obama for his semi-isolationist comment, during his Afghan policy address last week, in which Obama declared: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” If only that were true: if only the president was really committed to an industrial policy at home, enhancing America’s competitiveness by investing massively in education, job training, R&D, infrastructure and so on. But to my mind, getting our troops out of Afghanistan, albeit at a turtle’s pace, is better than nothing. But it’s too much for Hiatt. The Post editor goes on to berate the Republicans for being willing, too, like Obama, to cut military spending. And Hiatt criticizes Obama on the same score:
“At home [Obama] pocketed $400 billion in budget cuts offered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then demanded $400 billion more over 10 years. Those cuts may be achievable without harming U.S. leadership, but Obama doesn’t know that to be true. By setting the fiscal target, and having the Pentagon adjust strategy accordingly, he sends a message that deficit reduction matters most.”
On page 1, interestingly enough, the Post reports that in the current (now stalled) budget talks, the GOP is ready to slash spending at the DOD, though by how much isn’t clear. But the article’s lede reads:
“As President Obama prepares to meet Monday with Senate leaders to try to restart talks about the swollen national debt, some Republicans see a potential path to compromise: significant cuts in military spending.”
Hiatt claims that the rest of the world is eternally grateful to the United States for making the world safe, including its ability to use its military power to maintain “open and safe sea lanes,” although China and other countries dependent on the Middle East for energy might not agree. Indeed, in an accompanying unsigned editorial that sounds very much like it, too, was written by Hiatt, the Post urges Obama to get tough with China over Beijing’s claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea—the very same “sea lanes” that Hiatt says the world is so happy about having the United States exercise its military dominance! Says the imperial-sounding editorial:
“[China’s] menacing language makes clear why the United States needs to exert its influence. Up to one-third of global trade passes through the South China Sea, so preserving freedom of navigation is a ‘national interest,’ as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it last year. As important is checking China’s impulse to bully its neighbors, including not only friendly but weak democracies such as the Philippines but also Japan, which has its own maritime disputes with Beijing.
“The Obama administration has made gestures in this direction. In addition to Ms. Clinton’s statement—which she repeated last week—Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pledged recently that ‘five years from now the United States’ influence’ in Asia will be ‘as strong if not stronger than it is today.’ After meeting with Mr. del Rosario, Ms. Clinton said the United States was committed to the defense of the Philippines and to providing it with weapons, though she would not comment on the U.S. response to a potential attack by China in the South China Sea.”
I have news for the Post, and for ex–Secretary of Defense Gates. Five years from now, US influence in Asia will far less than it is today. Not only that, but China and Vietnam are quietly negotiating a deal over who owns what in the South China Sea, without needing to call in the United States.