I have been trying, and failing, to think of a period when Americans seemed as eager as they are now to shed their global burden -- while at the same time insisting on depleting the national treasury to pay for the military. During past periods of national self-absorption, including the generation before the civil war and the decades after World War I, standing armies and military expenditures shrank or remained modest. No longer: At a moment when many Americans want to reduce the role of government at home and especially abroad, the debt deal just concluded is likely to preserve the country's hypertrophied defense budget -- at least if congressional Republicans get their way. One is left asking: What do you want to do with all that money?
Step back for a moment and think about the terms of the deal that emerged from the debt ceiling debate this week. The first installment of cuts, totaling about $900 billion, is to be achieved through across-the-board cuts to the budget, including the Pentagon; the second tranche, of at least $1.2 trillion, will be decided by a bipartisan congressional commission. In order to ensure Republican compliance with the commission's recommendations, a budgetary sword of Damocles has been positioned over the one form of expenditure the party holds most dear: the defense budget, which will bear half the cuts should the commission fail to agree on a formula, or should Congress ignore its proposal.
Actually, it's worse than that: The GOP won a concession that the cuts would come out of "security" rather than only "defense" spending. Since "security" includes diplomacy and foreign aid (as well as homeland security), the party could thus eliminate the traditional tools of foreign policy in order to reduce the cuts to the military. And there's no reason to doubt that they would do so, since Republican legislators have sought to virtually get rid of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to gut development assistance, and to block increases in spending on the State Department. The United States would be left with a colossal military and a Ruritanian diplomatic corps.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Republicans knew why the United States needed to maintain its "position of unparalleled military strength," as President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy put it: to fight the "terrorists of global reach" who had launched an unprecedented attack on American soil. The fight required the United States to be prepared to respond at a moment's notice to terrorist threats, but also to "extend the benefits of freedom across the globe," whether through regime change, diplomacy, or the strategic use of foreign aid.
Ten years after the terrorist attack, both the fear of a sequel, and the faith in America's capacity to shape a better world, have ebbed. Or perhaps that's an overly analytical way of describing a national mood of sullen disillusionment with America's imperial role. The killing of Osama bin Laden has licensed a widespread desire to escape from the swamp of Afghanistan, to bring the boys home as they are already coming home from Iraq. Large majorities of Americans now say that the U.S. "should not be involved" in Afghanistan, or that they oppose the war there. The number of Americans who believe that promoting democracy abroad -- the heart of the Bush Doctrine -- should be a "top long-range priority" is minute, and shrinking fast.
President Barack Obama acknowledged the spirit of fatigue when he declared in his June 22 speech charting the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home." But while the president conceded that "this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world," he admonished his listeners that "we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events." It is precisely this obligation, however, that many Americans now want to dispose of like a boom-era mansion with a hopelessly underwater mortgage.