That the tide of American might is retreating from its outposts is unmistakable. The US military presence in Western Europe, a legacy of the Second World War, melted away after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In the Middle East, the hegemonic role of the US that emerged as a result of the decline of the old European colonial powers is also disappearing. The Obama regime chose to withdraw from Iraq, despite the sacrifice that American soldiers made to topple the Baathist dictatorship, through its refusal to negotiate an appropriate status agreement. Now it is running to the exits in Afghanistan before any modicum of stability has been achieved. In addition, Washington was conspicuous by its absence in ending the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and it remained willfully ignorant of the post-Gaddafi dangers, as seen in the tragic events in Benghazi.
Clearly, the US is not seeking exposure in the broad swath of geography stretching from Morocco to Central Asia. While America was prepared to mobilize against the Soviet enemy in the Cold War, it has little appetite for the messy business of failed states, Islamist radicalism, and terrorist campaigns. In addition, the declining dependence on Middle East oil simply reduces interest in the area altogether—surely a short-sighted calculation since so many of our allies, Europe and Japan, rely on the Saudi fields. Perhaps this retreat just reflects crude political motives: the Obama campaign wanted to point to the withdrawal in order to support its foreign policy narrative in the 2012 election. In that case, a future administration might reverse the decisions: yet this seems unlikely, not only due to budget constraints, but because strategic leadership once surrendered cannot easily be regained.
Can Europe step into the breach? Much speaks against this unlikely prospect. Europe has been investing at only very low levels in its military; it does not have the hardware to project power effectively. Nor will its welfare state budgets allow it to do much better in the future. In addition, Germany maintains a profoundly pacifist predisposition that makes any overseas deployments highly controversial and politically costly. Finally, to make matters worse, the EU requires unanimity among its 27 members in matters of foreign policy: hardly a structure designed for bold decision-making.