The Sleepy Superpower Awakes

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The Great Wall of China, roughly defining the northern contours of the Chinese empire, has stood in the same place for 2,200 years. The Great Wall of America — the barrier of bases set up around the world to define the contours of the free world and hold back the Soviet empire — is about to disappear after just 50 years.

We are living a revolution, and hardly anyone has noticed. In just the three months since the end of the Iraq war, the Pentagon has announced the essential evacuation of the U.S. military from its air bases in Saudi Arabia, from the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and from the vast Incirlik air base in Turkey — in addition to a radical drawdown of U.S. military personnel in Germany, the mainstay of the Great American Wall since 1945.

For a country that is seen by so much of the world as a rogue nation, recklessly throwing its weight around, this is a lot of withdrawing. The fact is that since 9/11, when America awoke from its post-cold war end-of-history illusions, the U.S. has not, as most believe, been expanding. It has been moving — lightening its footprint, rationalizing its deployments, rearranging its forces, waking from a decade of slumber during which it sat on its Great Wall, oblivious to its immobility and utter obsolescence.

Why, after all, are we in Germany 60 years after the fall of the Nazi regime and more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union? Because it took a decade — and 9/11--for the U.S. to see the obvious. It took that long to dispose of the colossal anachronism known as the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which made sense in a world of two antagonistic superpowers but made no sense in a world of rogue states and proliferating missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, it took a decade to recognize the craziness of stationing 15,000 U.S. troops as a sacrificial trip wire just yards from North Korea's million-man army.

Iceland is a perfectly nice place, and Icelanders are perfectly nice people. But what exactly are the U.S. Air Force jets stationed there protecting the Icelanders from? (The Pentagon is in talks to finally remove them.) And what is the point of our huge investments in air bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey? We were forbidden to fly combat missions out of them at the most critical of times, during a war against an Iraqi tyrant who threatened the entire neighborhood. The war in Iraq also made plain that our 68,000 troops in Germany are totally out of place, far from the action. They were unable to get to Iraq by land because Austria, with classic old Europe self-righteousness, refused to allow our troops to cross its territory to join the fight.

We are in the midst of a revolution, and it has two parts. The first is leaving places where we are not wanted. America is moving out of old Europe, which sees its liberty as coming with the air it breathes, and being welcomed in the new Europe of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, which have a living memory of tyranny and a deep understanding of America's role in winning their liberty. South Koreans regularly demonstrate against the U.S. presence in their country. Since the reason for that presence is for Americans to die in defense of Seoul, one has to ask oneself at what point strategic altruism becomes strategic masochism.

The second part is leaving places that mark the battle lines of a long-dead war. The great threat today is not Soviet attack but radical Arab-Islamic terrorism and instability in that part of the world. Hence the redeployment of American forces from the plains of Europe, Korea, perhaps next Japan, to the battleground of today: the Horn of Africa, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf.

The world talks in ominous terms about the new American empire. But the U.S. was far more of an empire in, say, 1949, when it sat behind its great wall of tank armies and nuclear bombers in static defense of large territories in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. That empire we are in the process of dismantling. The Soviets are gone, and those places, having risen from the ashes, are quite capable of defending themselves. The threat from North Korea, for example, is no longer the spread of communism but of nuclear weapons. The response should be not a sitting-duck standing army but a quick and light air-sea reaction force.

Moreover, many don't want us. So we're shifting into the far more difficult and dangerous game of containing and ultimately destroying the new enemy — nimble, mobile and undeterrable. That requires an entirely new strategy: small bases in new places, some simply forward staging areas with supplies awaiting the arrival of highly mobile troops in an emergency.

Less plodding, less heavy, less static, less fixed. This is the new American strategy: Empire Lite. Its assembly, having been announced piecemeal, has largely been missed. Make no mistake, however. We are in the midst of a great redeployment that will not only redraw the map of the world but also mark the ground to which history itself has moved.