By James Traub

American soldiers passing through Kuwait on their way home to the United States after leaving Iraq.

For the last 20 years we have lived amid the furious clangor of war — and debates over how to wage it. The intense and urgent clashes in the 1990s over “humanitarian intervention” gave way to pitched battles over “regime change” and “democracy promotion” after 9/11, and then to arguments over “counterinsurgency strategy,” a new battle for hearts and minds, as Barack Obama ramped up the war in Afghanistan.

The foreign policy debate has often felt like an ideological cockfight. And now, although we have not yet realized it, that era has come to an end.

For proof, you need look no further than the Pentagon’s new “strategic guidance” document, issued last month in the wake of Mr. Obama’s pledge to cut $485 billion from the defense budget over the coming decade. It repeats many of the core objectives of recent American national security strategy: defeat Al Qaeda, deter traditional aggressors, counter the threat from unconventional weapons.

But it also states, “In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize nonmilitary means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations.” It goes on to note that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

With this paragraph military planners signaled an abrupt end to the post-9/11 era of intervention. Only a few years ago the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars of occupation, nation-building and counterinsurgency — looked like the face of modern conflict. Now they don’t. Americans don’t believe in them and can’t afford them anymore. Read more…

James Traub is a columnist at foreignpolicy.com, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and the author of “The Freedom Agenda.”

As published in www.nytimes.com on February 18, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 19, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The End of American Intervention).


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