In the summer of 1983, during the depths of the Cold War, US president Ronald Reagan surprised the Pentagon by ordering a show of ground force in Honduras that was intended to deter leftists in Nicaragua and Cuba. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had to scurry to execute the president’s order, cutting exercises, postponing maintenance and delaying war games.
“We’re stretched thin,” sighed a senior staff officer.
Today, US forces are smaller and stretched even further around the world. The US base at Bagram, Afghanistan, for instance, is halfway around the world from the center of the 48 contiguous states near Lebanon, Kansas. On any given day, about one-third of the armed forces are deployed abroad.
Moreover, on Independence Day, the US’ military stretch was aggravated by national political and economic turmoil. On the 233rd birthday of the US, it would seem that the nation is badly in need of retrenchment — not a retreat into the isolation of yesteryear, but to step back, take a deep breath, reflect a bit and sort out priorities.
A debate over how deeply the US should be engaged with the rest of the world has been running off and on since World War II left the US standing as the world’s most powerful nation. Perhaps nowhere were opposing views better expressed than in the visions of former presidents John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Richard Nixon, a Republican.
In 1961, Kennedy proclaimed: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In contrast, in 1970 Nixon declared: “America cannot — and will not — conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.”
In the ensuing years, the Kennedy view has persisted and the US is still the policeman of the world despite occasional US demands that somebody else resolve the issue of the day. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, homeland security has gotten more attention, but still has not become the main concern of Washington.
In foreign policy, priorities really need to be sorted out. Precedence should go to long neglected relations with Canada and Mexico, and by extension Central America. With 8,000km of undefended northern and southern borders, the US must have friends across those borders.
Beyond that, the US should give priority to alliances with the UK, Australia and Japan, the island nations off the Eurasian land mass. India, the subcontinent cut off from Eurasia by mountains, desert and jungle, is a likely candidate to be added to that group. Israel, with which the US has long had special ties, rates a high priority.
In diplomacy, the US is understaffed, undereducated and underfunded. Eight US secretaries of state, including Republican Henry Kissinger and Democrat Madeleine Albright, recently called for a larger and better trained US diplomatic corps, especially in foreign languages. The secretaries cited a report saying that “sending diplomats abroad without language skills is like deploying soldiers without bullets.”
The eight secretaries asserted that the State Department “lacks the personnel to send to language training at a time when nearly 20 percent of regular positions in embassies and in the State Department are unfilled.”