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America in Recline

Obama's foreign policy leans back from the world.

The centuries-long dispute over whether and how much the United States should intervene in world affairs may at last be headed toward a resolution. A prominent early view, held by many of the founding fathers and aptly summarized by John Quincy Adams, enjoined Americans not to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." In the 1930s, the "America First" political movement clearly grew from this perspective. The most recent exposition of the case for a far less activist foreign policy has come this month in the form of MIT Professor Barry Posen's admonition in Foreign Affairs to limit commitments, downsize the armed forces, and "pull back" from the world.

The other side of the debate articulates a view about the crucial need to remain fully engaged in international affairs and has a similarly deep lineage, most notably going back to the Monroe doctrine (1823), which aimed to carve out a de facto hemispheric no-go zone for European colonial powers. President John F. Kennedy's call to in 1961 to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the cause of protecting liberty is also in sync with this perspective. As is the "lean forward" argument currently being advanced by Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth -- though they are much more cognizant of the need to be attentive to cost issues.

Somehow, over the course of his first term, Barack Obama has skillfully blended the best of both sides of the debate, along the way advancing a very cool doctrine that I would sum up as "lean back." It is very much in the spirit of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's concept of finding the middle way between sharply opposing views -- that is, to "synthesize" them. This is exactly what the Obama doctrine does. It respects the need to remain engaged in the high politics of world affairs, but it does so in an extremely economical fashion.

This notion of leaning back is best exemplified by the small-scale but worldwide war that the Obama administration has been waging against al Qaeda with a quiet ferocity over the past four years. And not just with drone strikes. The campaign is, for the most part, conducted by small bands of special operations forces and commanded overall by Admiral William McRaven -- the man who, among many other accomplishments, planned and oversaw the raid that got Osama bin Laden. The elite forces that he leads, along with dedicated professionals from our 16 intelligence agencies, have undertaken the task of detecting, tracking, and disrupting terrorist networks. Al Qaeda is the principal, but hardly the only, target of this "guerrilla war against guerrillas."

Leaning back, in essence, means bringing most of our large conventional forces home -- maybe even demobilizing some of them, as Posen suggests. But we don't leave entirely; our weight just shifts when we lean. There will still be presence in many places around the world -- perhaps even in more places, given that so much can be done these days by so few, thanks to the power of networking that links small combat teams with our incomparable air and naval strike assets, both manned and unmanned. And the units we do keep on the ground will work closely with local allies. This is true of the hundred special operations troops now in Uganda, who are helping to track down and destroy the Lord's Resistance Army. It will be the case in Afghanistan as well when the vast majority of our forces leave by the end of next year -- if not sooner.

Sometimes leaning back will allow interventions to occur without any American troops on the ground. This is because of the interesting, counterintuitive property of the lean-back concept: The reduced U.S. military presence both ends the "free ride" (as Posen puts it) that allies have enjoyed and makes their forces more effective with a little leavening of American logistics, intelligence support, and drone strikes. This approach is working well for French and Malian forces right now; they are driving Islamist rebels before them, soon right out of northern Mali. Earlier, this lean-back approach worked in Libya as well, and it is clearly the strategic tack being taken in the Syrian conflict. Interventions of this sort are preferable to, say, the Iraq model, where over a trillion dollars were expended, tens of thousands of American lives were lost or shattered, and, now that we have left, al Qaeda is back and an Iran-friendly government holds power.

The beauty of leaning back is that it completely scales down the cost structure of American foreign policy and security strategy -- but it does so in a way that allows not only continued but possibly even expanded international engagement. My long-time research partner at the RAND Corporation, David Ronfeldt, sees matters this way: We can be both scaled-down and "scaled out" -- that is, more widely deployed. Back in 1999, we recommended such an approach be taken during the Kosovo War, by adding a few of our at-the-ready Special Forces teams to the fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The choice was made not to do so in that particular war, but two years later our initial operations in Afghanistan, limited to about 200 Special Forces soldiers on the ground, won a stunning victory with this approach. It is a mode of operation that can be applied almost anywhere in the world, a point that should assuage the concerns about disengagement raised by Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth.

The truth of the matter is that we cannot afford to continue the longstanding Powell doctrine that calls for the employment of "overwhelming force" in our interventions. Besides, massive numbers and huge firepower failed in Vietnam, and efforts to "overwhelm" had very mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the end of overwhelming force does not require withdrawal from the world. There is now the option of deploying smaller, more precision-oriented units, enabling the United States to remain actively engaged wherever its interests and/or moral impulses demand. There is no need to pull back, and there is a way to avoid the undue costs that come with just leaning forward in the usual way. This new way is the path of "leaning back." President Obama is sometimes criticized for being too cool, but in the strategy business he knows enough to lean back. A commander-in-chief can never be too cool.

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