The midterm elections this November mark the unofficial commencement of the 2008 presidential campaign, and over the next two years, Americans will begin to contemplate and debate the legacy of George W. Bush. Among the more contentious elements of the Bush legacy has been the conduct of foreign policy. While some have focused on the operational mistakes of the Bush Administration, others have argued that its overall orientation-what I would describe as the maintenance of American primacy-is itself flawed and counterproductive to long-term American national interests.
A grand strategy based on American primacy means ensuring the United States stays the world's number one power-the diplomatic, economic and military leader. Those arguing against primacy claim that the United States should retrench, either because the United States lacks the power to maintain its primacy and should withdraw from its global commitments, or because the maintenance of primacy will lead the United States into the trap of "imperial overstretch." In the previous issue of The National Interest, Christopher Layne warned of these dangers of primacy and called for retrenchment.1
Those arguing for a grand strategy of retrenchment are a diverse lot. They include isolationists, who want no foreign military commitments; selective engagers, who want U.S. military commitments to centers of economic might; and offshore balancers, who want a modified form of selective engagement that would have the United States abandon its landpower presence abroad in favor of relying on airpower and seapower to defend its interests.
But retrenchment, in any of its guises, must be avoided. If the United States adopted such a strategy, it would be a profound strategic mistake that would lead to far greater instability and war in the world, imperil American security and deny the United States and its allies the benefits of primacy.