Belmont Club

Hotfooting it Across History

Some Democratic political figures find the most convincing proof of their greatness in a resemblance to a Republican figure. If President Obama can’t prove himself another Lincoln or Reagan, something he already tried, then he can at least pose as the new Donald Rumsfeld. The New Republic says Obama’s “light footprint” strategy to take on America’s enemies was pioneered by Rumsfeld.


The “light footprint” that is Barack Obama’s doctrine in foreign policy originated as Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine in military policy. Rumsfeld was undone by the contradiction between his ends and his means: in Iraq, he sought to attain big ends with small means, disastrously insisting that after “shock and awe” a light, nimble American force advantaged by technology would suffice for assisting the Iraqis in the political transformation of their country. This was Rumsfeld’s “revolution in military affairs.” Obama has accepted Rumsfeld’s ideal of the American military: the “strategic guidance document” issued by the Pentagon a year ago declares, in italics, that “whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives.” But Obama modified Rumsfeld’s vision in two ways. The first was that he eliminated the contradiction between the means and the ends by shrinking the ends to fit the means. The second was that he extended the principle of shrinkage from military policy to foreign policy. This is Obama’s revolution in international affairs.

Emblematic of this new approach is the new drone base planned to cover Northwestern Africa. The New York Times reports that “a new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.”


There’s little money for much else  than things like these. The US Army is facing $17 billion in cuts, part of $45 billion slated for the Pentagon overall.

But why is a policy which once proved Rumsfeld’s supposed incompetence now proof of Obama’s genius? The New Republic says that Rumsfeld came undone when Bush took on Iraq, which was unsuited to his means.

If so, then conflicts like Syria pose a strategic a problem to the Obama/Rumsfeld “light footprint” because they also have the potential to go heavy. The editorial board of the Washington Post say that every week that passes widens the potential scope of the conflict. The possibility is may become a regional conflict is real. And if Syria eventually blows up it will take more than “light footprint” methods to deal with it.

It might seem as though the horrors of Syria, where more than 60,000 people have died violently in the last 22 months, could not grow worse. Yet steadily, week by week, they do. One measure is the refu­gee flows: In the past month more than 30,000 people have fled to neighboring Jordan alone, threatening to overwhelm an already unstable monarchy. More than 200,000 Syrians are now in Lebanon, 150,000 in Turkey and 75,000 in Iraq, according to the United Nations. A group of U.S. senators who recently visited a camp heard horrific stories of the ongoing crimes by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as bitter complaints that Western countries — in particular, the United States — are doing little or nothing to help.

The logic at work here — the longer the Assad regime holds on, the worse the consequences — was acknowledged by senior Obama administration officials nearly a year ago. The incoming secretary of state, John F. Kerry, repeated it at his confirmation hearing last week: “Every day that goes by, it gets worse.” From that follows a logical conclusion, stated Monday by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: “If we don’t give the means to the Syrian people to go achieve their freedom, there is a risk . . . that massacres and antagonisms amplify, and that extremism and terrorism prevail.”


The logical solution to avoiding the mismatch between a light footprint means and a superpower role, as the New Republic article points out, is to shrink the diplomatic goals to match the straitened means. Although Leon Wieseltier, the author of the New Republic article, characterizes the “new Obama doctrine” by calling it “the belief in the primacy of domestic policy” it is really nothing more than a glorified no mas. Obama has taken America out of the superpower business. He’s not coming out when the bell sounds.

Hopefully the guys in other corners don’t come out either. This retreat may be an unavoidable and even desirable course of action. But historically events have a way of presenting external challenges that cannot be refused. Ancient history records that Rome experienced what historians now call the “crisis of the Third Century” when the Mediterranean order “nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression”.

The driver for this collapse was domestic hyperinflation. The Ludwig von Mises Institute describes a process that modern readers might not feel unfamiliar with today. Inflation, rising taxes and payments to troublemakers to keep the peace were the Roman solutions. Perhaps deficits, rising taxes and immigration reform are American ones.

Under Augustus this circulated at 45 coins to a pound of gold. Caracalla made it 50 to a pound of gold. Within 20 years after him it was circulating at 72 to a pound of gold, reduced to 60 at the end of the century by Diocletian, only to be raised again to 72 by Constantine. So even the gold coinage was in fact inflated — debased.

But the real crisis came after Caracalla, between 258 and 275, in a period of intense civil war and foreign invasions. The emperors simply abandoned, for all practical purposes, a silver coinage. By 268 there was only 0.5 percent silver in the denarius.

Prices in this period rose in most parts of the empire by nearly 1,000 percent. The only people who were getting paid in gold were the barbarian troops hired by the emperors. The barbarians were so barbarous that they would only accept gold in payment for their services.


The military costs of empire and growing civil service bloated the state; forcing Roman emperors to find new sources of tax revenues. They did this by taxing the wealthy and by looting the temples to pagan gods, thereby encouraging the rise of Christianity in the process since it delegitimized the old temples.

But all did not go well. An attempt to return to the gold standard created a two-tier monetary system throughout the empire. Taxes were paid in gold but business was conducted on other terms. Eventually people had to buy “real money” with other money.  As a result people began to work for the government.

Now, what were the consequences of inflation? One of the odd things about inflation is, in the Roman Empire, that while the state survived — the Roman state was not destroyed by inflation — what was destroyed by inflation was the freedom of the Roman people. Particularly, the first victim was their economic freedom.

Well Rome’s gone.

The second example of an imperial retreat that did not work out well is echoes in living memory. After the Great War the UK tried to save money by allowing foreign threats to grow. Unfortunately it got Hitler as a result. The economies proved futile in the end. Ultimately, all the savings of Baldwin and Chamberlain were spent and then some, in the Second World War.

Well Britain is gone as an empire too.

If Obama is lucky abroad and competent domestically may he can manage the world with “a light footprint” until America recovers. But if Obama proves domestically incompetent and faces external challenges then his new “light footprint” is not only likely to fail but produce a larger problem than it started with.


But America is neither doomed nor foreordained to follow in the footsteps of Rome and the British Empire. What is most notably different today is the rate of technological change.  Possibilities which would have taken centuries or decades to emerge in the past now occur in a vastly compressed time period. The technology exists for example, in both hydrocarbon technologies and thorium nuclear power, to make North America the world’s new energy superpower.

The rapid rate of change also means that societies can reinvent themselves at a similarly accelerated pace. Institutional inertia as much as anything else will play an important role in determining which way a society develops. Ultimately the weight of Obama’s footprints is not going to be as important as the direction in which they tend.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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