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Indispensable Nation

The tradition lives on.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Nor, if Barack Obama's words last year to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are to be taken seriously, have we seen the end of American unilateralism or the possibility of preemption. Declared Obama: "No president should ever hesitate to use force--unilaterally if necessary--to protect ourselves and our vital interest when we are attacked or imminently threatened." And like Bush, Obama sees "this century's threats"--the combination of "rogue states allied to terrorists" and weapons of mass destruction "fall[ing] into the hands of terrorists"--"as dangerous as and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past."

Of course, Lynch and Singh are not naive about the difference an individual president can make in shaping security policy. But as they pointedly note, "For all their recent acrimony, Democrats and Republicans have more in common with each other on foreign policy than they do even with their closest allies in Europe and Asia."

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is the consensus about the character of the threats the United States faces, especially from Islamist terrorism. Second, and equally important, is the fact that there doesn't appear to be any realistic alternative to the exercise of American primacy. Balance of power scenarios, handing things off to the U.N., isolationism--none offers much prospect of long-term stability, let alone security. And there is the unique American strategic vision that pursues its universalist aspirations with the tools of power (soft and hard) and trade.

Moreover, as After Bush argues, when you step back and take an honest account of how all of this has played out in practice, you see that, on balance, this American approach to the world has been successful. Whether it is the peace enjoyed by the democracies of the world, or the advances made in the war on terror, the existing approach to foreign policy has served Americans and their allies well.

Nor have the costs been as high as critics claim. Defense spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product remains lower, as Lynch and Singh note, than what the federal government spends on Social Security and substantially less (by nearly a factor of three!) on welfare programs altogether. And for all the talk about the unpopularity of the Bush White House abroad, there has been no seismic shift in the international order: America's allies remain about where they have been during the past 20 years, as have relations with the would-be competitor state of China. (Interestingly, immigration from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States has actually gone up since 9/11.)

All that said, Lynch and Singh understand that George W. Bush's central strategic goal--the transformation of the Middle East--will not come easily, and may well require a "reformation" within Islam that is scarcely under the control of the United States and the West.

Yet, as difficult as that task may be, as Lynch and Singh point out, the United States has been here before. A president comes to office, lacking an electoral mandate. He is a "notoriously incurious and relatively provincial man," who soon faces a loss of control of Congress while having to address an extraordinarily difficult new security crisis. He offers up a "sweeping vision" to address that crisis, "essentially dividing the world into those who are with or against America" while, at the same time, undertaking "far-reaching" changes in the government's security organizations. And finally, that president leaves office with "his popularity at its lowest ebb" and the country "mired in a seemingly unwinnable war."

Of course, whether Bush goes down in history as a second Harry Truman is anybody's guess. But as our two professors from Britain do well to remind us: For all the difficulties, the American way in foreign and defense affairs has served the nation, and the world, pretty well.

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar and director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.