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Welcome to the Era of the Light Footprint

Obama finally finds his doctrine

Brendan Smialowksi/AFP/Getty Images

The "light footprint" that is Barack Obama's doctrine in foreign policy originated as Donald Rumsfeld's doctrine in military policy. Rumsfeld was undone by the contradiction between his ends and his means: in Iraq, he sought to attain big ends with small means, disastrously insisting that after "shock and awe" a light, nimble American force advantaged by technology would suffice for assisting the Iraqis in the political transformation of their country. This was Rumsfeld's "revolution in military affairs." Obama has accepted Rumsfeld's ideal of the American military: the "strategic guidance document" issued by the Pentagon a year ago declares, in italics, that "whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives." But Obama modified Rumsfeld's vision in two ways. The first was that he eliminated the contradiction between the means and the ends by shrinking the ends to fit the means. The second was that he extended the principle of shrinkage from military policy to foreign policy. This is Obama's revolution in international affairs.

When that document was released, its revisions in the scale and the mission of the American military were interpreted as the inexorable effect of the fiscal crisis, but that is not the whole story. Obama is acting also in the name of a strategic concept. It is an old, cold concept. Obama's loftiness has provided cover for the ascendancy of "realism"—which is not always the same as realism, as the consequences of our abdication in Syria will eventually demonstrate. The Obama-Rumsfeld lineage is only one of the ironies of the new foreign policy consensus. There is also the bizarre enthusiasm of progressives for the amoral likes of Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. And richest of all is their sudden reverence for Chuck Hagel, whom none of them admired, and rightly not, when he was in the Senate. (No, he is not an anti-Semite. Congratulations.)

The most egregious aspect of the celebration of Hagel is the belief that his Purple Hearts validate his withdrawalist inclinations. Since he experienced war, he hates war. "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can," Eisenhower once remarked. Why, then, does John McCain's bravery in Vietnam not validate his interventionist inclinations? The truth is that nobody loves war, and that you do not have to have witnessed war to hate war, and that war (or the use of force) is sometimes just and necessary. The merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it, even if it confers a certain pathos. A chest full of medals hardly denotes a brain full of truths. Hagel's optimism about diplomacy with Iran and Hamas, his opposition to sanctions, his recoil from humanitarian interventions—we will soon see if these opinions are correct, when Eisenhower, I mean Hagel, is confirmed, and executes (as the business people say) on Obama's diminishment of America's ambition in and for the world. Our detached president is detaching us.

One of the essential elements of the new consensus in foreign policy is the belief in the primacy of domestic policy. Before America asserts itself abroad, it is universally agreed, we must put our house in order. ("The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities," Eisenhower declared in a famous speech in 1953.) Of course history never provides such a "before." There is no temporary suspension of crises and duties in which we may refresh ourselves. Like individuals, nations exist in many realms simultaneously. Obama is right about "nation-building at home," but his implication that therefore we are exempt from assisting in the building of nations abroad, that fiscally speaking it is them or us, is momentously wrong. Even in our current woes, societies and movements in trouble look to us. And yet almost every conversation about our diplomacy now turns into a conversation about our economy. This is sophisticated thinking at its most simplistic. The causal relationship between our fiscal condition and our place in the world is not as neat as the economicists say. There are many ways to reduce defense spending, and each of them represents not an incontestable budget number but a contestable strategic vision; and anyway the defense budget is hardly what threatens the government's solvency. And will the economicists, the actuarial doves, become interventionists if we finally balance the budget? Of course not: they have other grounds-ideological, moral, historical—for their love of the light footprint. (In the matter of Israel, incidentally, the light-footprintists demand a heavy touch—another irony, or a hypocrisy?)

I do not understand all this good conscience about the weakening of America's influence in the world, since I regard America's influence as generally a blessing for the world. I am not referring only to the export of our technology and our culture. If the United States does not determine to assist democratic struggles around the world, then those struggles will suffer and even fail. We cannot save societies that do not wish to save themselves, but we can significantly affect the likelihood of their emancipations. The dictator in Iran and the dictator in Syria enjoy the diplomatic protection and the logistical support of Putin, a strong-footprint man; but from Obama their valiant opponents get only complexity, passivity, and loquacity. (The new f-word in Washington, the one that it is impolite to utter, is "freedom.") And what will our Asian "pivot" be worth, in the way of preparing for the full emergence of the Chinese hegemon, if it, too, is a light footprint? Is smaller really better—or safer? We are about to wane. We have elected to wane. Good luck to us. One day history will surprise us, and shame on us for being surprised. "There is no alternative to peace," said Eisenhower, who presided over an era of complacence. Alas, the world is lousy with people and powers who think otherwise. It may be the dumbest thing ever said by a soldier.