Talking Points

Biden won't reconsider America's imperial reach

President Biden won't be the leader who rethinks the wisdom of America's global military footprint. The Pentagon announced Monday it had exhaustively reviewed all U.S. military deployments around the world — roughly 170,000 individuals in more than 150 countries — and decided its previous decisions were nearly perfect.

Oh, there will be a few changes: Some bases and airfields in the Pacific need beefing up, in preparation for a possible war with China. And we'll probably send some more personnel back to Germany. Otherwise, things are pretty much fine. "There was a sense at the outset that there was a potential for some major force posture changes," an unidentified official told the Wall Street Journal. "Then, as we got deeper and deeper into the work, we realized in the aggregate that the force posture around the world was about right."

That can't be right, can it? "A force posture whose nucleus derives from the Cold War just so happens to be ideal for 2021?" asked Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It's a good question.

Ostensibly, the United States puts its arms around the world to protect Americans and American interests. But that meddling often creates the very problems it is intended to mitigate: Al Qaeda attacked on 9/11 in part because of Osama bin Laden's rage at U.S. troops remaining in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War in 1991. More recently, American forces in Iraq have occasionally come under attack from Iran-backed militias, which has led to American retaliation, which in turn has ramped up the possibilities of a more intense, widespread conflict. 

The sheer mass of America's military might also makes it more difficult to summon up the resources or willpower to seek "non-kinetic" solutions to other pressing problems. "This is the peril of creating such a large force: The annual budget for the U.S. military has grown to more than a gargantuan $700 billion, and we are more likely to use it, and less likely to build better substitutes," University of Texas professor Jerami Suri wrote earlier this year. "We send soldiers where we need civilians because the soldiers get the resources."

Biden was probably never going to be the president to challenge this state of affairs. He's an establishment guy, after all. Yes, he got us out of Afghanistan — and that was an incredibly brave act. But it also coincided with the plunge in his approval ratings. Maybe the next president can reserve some political capital for a bigger reconsideration of America's imperial reach.