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An Overstretched U.S. Should Scale Back Its Commitments
The U.S. should focus on those interests that matter most and make cutbacks elsewhere as needed.
Hal Brands is back to dreaming about a multi-front war:
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ignited Europe’s largest conflict in generations and provoked a great-power proxy fight. In East Asia, the chances of war are growing, as the tensions precipitated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August demonstrated. In the Middle East, the US may have to choose between fighting Iran and accepting it as a nuclear threshold state.
Put these crises together and you have the makings of a Eurasian conflagration.
Brands allows that the U.S. might avoid war in all three regions, but he says that this “thought exercise demonstrates just how pervasive the danger of major war has become.” It shows me that the danger of U.S. involvement in a major war depends to a remarkable degree on whether the U.S. actively seeks to fight one. As long as the U.S. does not go out of its way to engage in direct conflicts with these other states, it is extremely unlikely that there will be new major wars in the near future.
To take the last example first, the “choice” between attacking Iran or not attacking it is really no choice at all. Starting a war with Iran over its nuclear program would be illegal and insane, and on top of all that it would further worsen U.S. and global economic woes. The only reason that there is any real danger of war over this issue is the constant agitation here in the U.S. and in Israel for committing acts of criminal aggression against Iran. In short, this is only a crisis that can cause a war if our government insists on making it one.
Brands is right that “[a]n overstretched US cannot react to one problem without considering the impact on its ability to deal with others,” which is all the more reason for the U.S. to stop volunteering to take on so many additional burdens that it isn’t required to bear. If the U.S. is overstretched, and it is, that means that the U.S. has overcommitted itself and needs to scale back. Brands nods at this, but only by way of dismissing it as an option:
Strategy textbooks typically say that a country with more commitments than capabilities should reduce the former or increase the latter. That’s sound long-term advice, but it isn’t as helpful right now.
When would this advice be helpful if not now? It is not surprising that Brands doesn’t want to reduce U.S. commitments anywhere, but if we went by his standard there would never be a good time to make the attempt. He says, “Retrenchment is hard to get right in ideal conditions, let alone when rivals are advancing.” What he really means here is that it should not be tried because it isn’t possible to pull it off perfectly. Hawks will always says that “rivals are advancing” no matter how small or slow the advances may be, so instead of holding our policy decisions hostage to what other states may or may not be doing the U.S. should focus on those interests that matter most and make cutbacks elsewhere as needed.
While Brands keeps saying that “[w]ar between the US and its rivals is not inevitable,” he isn’t making much of an effort to think through how they can be avoided. If the U.S. supposedly can’t reduce commitments, it can at least seek to reduce tensions with one or more of the “rivals.” If these states are beginning to form what he calls a “loose revisionist axis,” one would think that the priority would be finding ways to drive wedges between them and establish better relations with at least one or two of them, but Brands isn’t interested in that.
If we took Brands’ advice, the U.S. would still have forces in Afghanistan and he would be telling us that they can’t be withdrawn for fear of encouraging the revisionists. It’s the same old story every time. The hawks tell us that it’s never the right time to leave, and it will invite others to become more aggressive if we do. That is usually wrong, and it is a recipe for never winding down any commitment anywhere no matter how irrelevant it is to our security.