Recent diplomatic efforts by the White House with both North Korea and Iran — nuclear newbies and remaining members of the "axis of evil" — strike many as the Bush administration’s desperate grab for legacy. But I see a different strategic reality emerging, one that will steer the next president’s course whether he likes it or not.
Due to Afghanistan and Iraq, our military is essentially tied-down on a near global basis. That means America cannot place large numbers of boots on the ground anywhere right now, and to do so with any speed would be monumentally difficult.
If we’re going to fault Bush-Cheney on grand strategic terms, we will need to divide our criticism between two points: the opportunity costs involved and the strategic overhang created.
The former refers to crises not addressed since 9/11. This is a tricky thing to measure, because, by most experts’ definitions, most of the world’s so-called crises do not qualify as truly international security crises if the United States military doesn’t show up. Instead, they’re "hot spots": failed states, chronic wars, "disturbing developments," and the like.
I’ll skip boring you with a long list of actual events, like Darfur, where American forces could have made a difference. The simple reality is, the Bush administration chose Afghanistan and Iraq, ceding the rest of the planet to the tender mercies of whoever bothers to show up when the shooting starts.
As for the downstream strategic overhang, by that I mean how long it would take successive administrations to "burn off" the "weight" of long-pursued interventions with deeply sunk costs. In other words, how long has the Bush administration tied down U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq so as to make impossible any serious re-direct to other regions in the event of a crisis truly perceived as such by Washington?
Possible examples would be a major intervention into collapsing North Korea, the always-available Iran scenario, and — most immediately — a major intervention into northwest Pakistan. Given that all of these scenarios are brewing at something above room temperature right now, we can approximate our strategic overhang by sensing how "soft-power" oriented — or diplomatic — America’s attempts have been to manage these situations under Bush-Cheney.
On that scale, it would seem that our current strategic overhang led the Bush administration, in its last years, to sue for peace everywhere except Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the situation get any better any time soon for our incoming president? Unlikely.
Even with a strategic withdrawal from one or both situations, the institutional "healing time" involved for the Army and Marines will be substantial, and it’s extremely unlikely that any president would endure that loss of strategic face without respecting that requirement. As for another scenario forcing such an immediate shift; there I think you’d have to consult the Bush-Cheney second-term record to recognize just how hard that would be.
Here, we finally get to the meat of the matter: by consuming so much of America’s military force during these seven long years of non-stop, high tempo, high rotation action, the Bush administration basically condemned its successor to what will probably be an additional seven lean years of military operations.
Whether it’s simply winding down Afghanistan and/or Iraq and "replenishing the force," or shifting dollars from operations and maintenance funds to cover a plethora of Cold War "programs of record" that the Bush Administration has refused to scale back, the next administration has been handed a veritable train wreck in terms of future budgetary crises. Something will have to give.
What does that mean for the next president? It means ingenuity and inventiveness will be at a premium, because our incoming president’s grand strategy is necessarily one of realigning America’s trajectory to that of a world being transformed by the simultaneous rise of numerous great powers.
Thomas P.M. Barnett (tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com) is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and author of the forthcoming book "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush."