Republicans and Democrats are blaming one another for impending cuts to the defense budget brought about by sequestration. But with serial annual deficits of $1 trillion-plus and an aggregate debt nearing $17 trillion, the United States -- like an insolvent Rome and exhausted Great Britain of the past -- was bound to re-examine its expensive overseas commitments and strategic profile.
The president's nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary was a sort of Zen-like way of having a Republican combat veteran orchestrate a reduced military. In fact, Barack Obama has nurtured a broad and diverse constituency for his neo-isolationist vision. Budget hawks concede that defense must suffer its fair share of cuts. Libertarians want back their republic and hate the big-government baggage that comes along with a big military's involvement overseas.
Leftists agree, adding that the U.S. has neither the moral authority nor the wherewithal to arrange events overseas. For liberals, a scaled-back military presence abroad means more entitlements at home. For each F-22 Raptor not built, about another 20,000 families could receive food stamps for a year.
The American public -- exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan -- is receptive to all the above arguments. If our poorer grandparents thought 70 percent of the annual U.S. budget devoted to defense after the Korean War was about right, we, the more affluent, insist that even the present 20 percent is far too costly.
The result is that we lead from behind in Libya; France leads from the front in Mali. Syria and Iran shrug off Obama's periodic sermons to behave. Our reset with Russia was abruptly reset by Russia. American policy in the Middle East could be summed up as "Whatever" -- as we become only mildly miffed that distasteful authoritarian allies are replaced by more distasteful Islamist enemies.
In his first major speech as secretary of state, John Kerry did not worry about radical Islam. Nor did he warn Americans of a rogue North Korea, a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, or China -- bullying in the Pacific and cyber-hacking the U.S. -- but mostly of the need for collective efforts to address climate change. A shortage of solar panels and windmills, not impending cuts in U.S. ships and planes, is Kerry's idea of existential danger on the global horizon.
To the extent that there is a coherent American foreign policy, it is perhaps symbolized by drone assassinations: Every couple of days or so, just kill a terrorist suspect or two -- and as cheaply, as remotely and as quietly as possible.
What will the world look begin to look like as the global sheriff backs out of the world saloon with both guns holstered?