x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

American foreign policy can't afford old warlike habits

The United States is reorienting foreign policy to secure American interests in an increasingly multipolar world with less reliance on military intervention.

Despite renewed messages from the White House about "diplomatic windows closing" and President Barack Obama's willingness to resort to force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, the indicators suggest that it would take a serious provocation from Tehran to draw Washington into a new war of choice in the Middle East.

It's not just Mr Obama's oft-stated preference for a diplomatic solution that underscores his aversion to new military entanglements abroad - nor is it that he withdrew from Iraq and plans to do the same in Afghanistan next year.

The "sequester" spending cuts that Mr Obama signed into effect last Friday as a consequence of the long-term political paralysis in Washington will cut $500 billion (Dh1.8 trillion) from US military spending over the next decade, over and above cuts of $467 billion previously adopted by the administration. Already, those cuts have resulted in the Pentagon opting to keep just one aircraft carrier on Iran's front doorstep rather than two, as originally planned.

Even if Mr Obama were a raging hawk, America's economic wherewithal to engage in expeditionary wars is shrinking. President George W Bush essentially put his Iraq and Afghanistan invasions on Washington's credit card - he even slashed taxes while undertaking military adventures at a cost to the US taxpayer that will be in the region of $4 trillion.

Defence officials issued increasingly dire warnings in recent weeks over the corrosive effect of the sequester cuts on US "military readiness". That doesn't refer to the US military's ability to protect the nation's shores from foreign threats, but rather to its ability to play the global policing role that has been accepted as the norm since the onset of the Cold War.

The US spends some $700 billion a year on its military - over 40 per cent of the total defence expenditure of the entire planet - not simply to protect its sovereignty and citizens, but to impose its writ and protect its allies in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa. It maintains more than 1,000 bases overseas, and when Mr Obama was first elected there were half a million US troops stationed abroad. US Central Command, for example, may be headquartered in Tampa, Florida, but its formal "Area of Responsibility" includes the 20 Arab and Central Asian nations that span from Egypt to Kazakhstan.

But the Bush administration's wars of choice have gone badly - Afghanistan and Iraq have, in fact, graphically illustrated the limits of what the US can achieve by force of arms. And that was before the economic meltdown that began with the financial crisis of 2008. Historians teach that the great empires - the Romans, the Ottomans, the British- collapse first and foremost from internal economic decline.

Besides depriving the military of a half trillion dollars over the next decade, the sequester also threatens to plunge the US economy back into recession further exacerbating the US's loss of strength.

The US global role emerged at the end of the Second World War, when it was by far the world's strongest economy, and able to build up a military capability to reflect that dominance. While it will remain the world's largest military power for the foreseeable future, the shifting economic balance and shrinking US military power inevitably limit Washington's role as the global sheriff.

Mr Obama - and the new Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the UAE yesterday - appear to be reorientating US foreign policy to secure American interests in an increasingly multipolar world with less reliance on military intervention. "We can't dictate to the world," the incoming Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on his arrival to take charge of the Pentagon last Friday. "But we must engage the world."

Appointing Mr Hagel and sticking by him despite a furious counter-offensive by Republican hawks who have never forgiven their former party colleague for his scepticism over the Iraq occupation - and his questioning of the case for war with Iran - signalled Mr Obama's second-term intent. Mr Kerry is another pragmatist who favours engagement over megaphone diplomacy.

But the challenge of engagement is summed up by a former US undersecretary of state, Nick Burns: Mr Obama "has pivoted away from reflexively trying to make others bend to our superior force," he wrote in The Boston Globe last weekend. "But if Washington wants to emphasize diplomacy ... it will have to counter two sharply negative trends that have nearly hollowed out our diplomatic strength in recent years." Those trends were a "troubling militarization of our foreign policy", and a steady erosion through congressional funding cuts of the size and capacity of US diplomacy.

Even if he hopes to emphasise diplomacy over force, Mr Obama will contend with the reality that Washington's dysfunctional government is likely to further weaken the diplomatic apparatus as well as the military.

Meanwhile, to the extent that either Israel's or Iran's hawks doubt the Obama administration's appetite for new military interventions, of course, there's a danger of either side acting provocatively and prompting a conflagration to which Mr Obama feels compelled to respond. That may be the main reason behind the new series of public statements and carefully placed media stories suggesting that sequester notwithstanding, Mr Obama remains ready for war.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @Tony Karon