In 1968, the sun truly sank on the British Empire. Then Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the beginning of a phased withdrawal of British forces from bases and outposts east of the Suez Canal. Planned to extend over a number of years, the withdrawal was hastened by a run on the British pound which nearly collapsed that country’s economy and necessitated radical budget cuts, including to national defense. By 1972, the British flag had been lowered across half the world. Only the United States was left to defend the interests of the West in the Middle East and Asia.
Anyone care to draw any parallels with the impending start of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? The Obama Administration is under many of the same pressures that influenced the decisions of British governments in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the President laid out a rationale for our involvement in Afghanistan when he announced the surge in 2009, apparently no one was listening or they have since forgotten his arguments. The larger problem for the administration is the failure to articulate a clear rationale for a large, continuing and expensive U.S. military presence overseas. In fact, as our allies’ performance over Libya demonstrates, our forward deployments to Europe and elsewhere seem to have been an invitation for others to do less in their own defense. Compounding this is the growing financial difficulties facing the country and the White House and increasing pressure to rein in defense spending. Finally, there is something beyond simple war weariness at play among the American people. They have lost the thread of the case for this country behaving like a superpower.
What the Wilson government had planned as a slow and deliberate withdrawal from positions east of Suez became a near-rout when financial distress hit. The United States may face the same problem over the next few years. The President is expected to propose a time-phased withdrawal of the troops sent as part of the surge, possibly modified by the situation on the ground at the time. But what about the other 70,000 U.S. personnel and those from allied countries? If he does not make the case for a longer-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan he places the entire enterprise at risk. Without a compelling rationale for our presence in that country, in Southwest Asia and globally, any future economic shocks could see the collapse of the Afghan experiment, the defense budget and America’s global military position.
When Britain pulled out of Asia and the Middle East the United States was prepared and able to take its place. So the power vacuum in the world was temporary in duration and limited in scope. If the United States withdraws from either the Middle East or Asia, the world will be left with a yawning security chasm.
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