Time for America to Set Its Foreign-Policy Priorities

"Not every commitment is equally important. Not every conflict is equally threatening. Not every problem is equally open to an American solution."

The U.S. government is financially bankrupt and can ill afford to police the world. There’s no painless way to abandon America’s role as global policeman, but Washington could start by balancing interests and dropping less important commitments.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States focused its policy on containing the Soviet Union. Washington effectively took over the defense of much of Asia and Europe, fought or supported combatants in several Third World proxy wars, engaged in nation-building, and otherwise routinely intervened around the globe.

Now the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are gone, communism has disappeared as a geopolitical threat, Maoist China has morphed into a more restrained semifascist state, and the potpourri of Third World dictatorships allied with Moscow have disappeared or reformed. Yet U.S. foreign policy has barely changed.

The U.S. continues to defend wealthy Asian and European client states. American military personnel continue to die fighting in Third World conflicts, only in different nations. Washington continues to attempt to micromanage the globe.

On the day President Barack Obama announced America’s return to Iraq’s conflict, the Korea Herald reported that Air Force Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas said Air-Sea Battle was the Pentagon’s new war-fighting doctrine in the Korean peninsula. ASB requires upgrading aircraft on station with the expensive F-35.

Is there anywhere that America is prepared to say does not warrant military intervention?

For a time, President Barack Obama followed his predecessors in acting as if there were no limits to U.S. capabilities. He twice-increased American troop levels in Afghanistan, maintained the Bush administration’s withdrawal timetable from Iraq, joined Libya’s civil war, expanded drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen and backed insurgent forces in Syria, all the while increasing military spending.

However, the so-called “pivot” to Asia suggested that the administration finally realized some choices had to be made. Indeed, East Asia looked increasingly volatile, with an unsettling power transition in North Korea and the People’s Republic of China flexing its muscles over territorial claims in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam pushed back, creating more than the usual number of flash points.

Yet Washington’s commitment of more resources and attention to Asia appeared to have little effect on American policy elsewhere in the world. Administration officials continued to treat a U.S.-dominated NATO as essential, even as some European states abandoned even the pretense of deploying capable militaries. The war in Afghanistan went on. The Middle East drew new visits by the Secretary of State, foreign-aid transfers and promises of military defense.

Indeed, far from “rebalancing” by shifting resources and efforts to Asia, the administration jumped back into the Mideast’s deep end, announcing yet another forlorn effort to get Israel to agree to peace with Palestinians, attempting to manage the Arab Spring, pushing to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and issuing the usual threats of military action against Iran.

Last year, the president proposed to launch air strikes against Syria, backing away only after failing to win congressional approval. America’s “withdrawal” from Afghanistan will be only partial, with no guarantee that all combat forces will return home when promised. More dramatically, Russia’s absorption of Crimea prompted manifold administration efforts to “reassure” the Europeans, including shifting ground, air and naval units to the region. Washington even appeared open to proposals for adding permanent U.S. garrisons to NATO’s eastern-most members.

Now the president is sending limited ground forces to Iraq, with the added possibility of air and drone strikes. Even if his promise to avoid direct participation in combat is sincere, he may find it hard to limit U.S. involvement in a complex and evolving conflict.

In the midst of growing chaos in the Middle East, military officials are discussing their war doctrines for Korea.

U.S. foreign and military policy has a mad quality to it. The basic presumption is that involvement everywhere should be forever. Rather like energy under the law of thermodynamics, American intervention never ends—it merely changes form. Even when a conflict formally ends, Washington’s objective is to maintain a presence in some form. When U.S. officials speak of modernizing or updating security ties, they mean Washington introducing new equipment, expanding the alliance’s purview, reaffirming security guarantees and reassuring client states that American forces will come running, sailing or flying, irrespective of Washington’s other priorities, be they foreign or domestic.

With President Obama proving unwilling to keep America out of any conflict in any part of the world, he should at least set priorities within regions. Not every commitment is equally important. Not every conflict is equally threatening. Not every problem is equally open to an American solution.