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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

Homefront a priority for Obama


By Richard Halloran

When the late Russell Wiggins was editor of the Washington Post in the 1960s, he liked to say that in American foreign and security policy, "the stockade comes first."

He was referring to the Old West when the cavalry rode out from the stockade, or fort, to protect settlers from marauding outlaws or Indians on the warpath. But if the horse soldiers were forced to choose between defending the far-flung settlers or their home base, the stockade came first. Otherwise, the cavalry would be unable to defend anyone.

Today, Americans see their armed forces and diplomats stretched thin, their politicians bitterly divided, the economy limping, and allies willing to stand by while the U.S. polices the globe. Maybe it is time for Americans to tell the world that, if Americans are forced to choose, the stockade will come first.

That may have been the intent, even if inadvertent, of President Obama last week when he canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia for the second time so that he could attend to the vast oil spill along the Gulf Coast.

Today marks the 66th anniversary of the allied landings in Normandy in 1944, not only the largest and most dangerous cross-water invasion in history but the emblem of American power projection that now extends further than that of the Roman or Mongol empires. U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan are direct descendants of those who fought in Normandy 66 years ago.

Given that stretch, Americans should consider retrenching, pulling back from some foreign engagements but not retreating into a "Fortress America." The posture of the U.S. should be somewhere between walking the streets as the policeman of the world and being a watchman on the ramparts of an isolationist citadel.

President Obama started down this path in the National Security Strategy he issued last month but made only the first moves. "Our strategy starts by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home," the president wrote.

He said the U.S. should expand its economy, reduce the federal deficit, better educate the nation's children, develop clean energy and cut dependence on foreign oil. The president asserted: "We must see innovation as a foundation of American power."

Addressing other nations, he cautioned: "The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power." He vowed that the U.S. would not go it alone but then said little about getting others to pick up a share of the military, diplomatic and economic burden.

Japan, South Korea and other allies and friends in Asia need to assume some of the load now carried by the U.S. for the common defense. In a key measure, defense spending, only tiny Singapore bears a burden equal in proportion to that of the U.S.

In the most recent year examined, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found the U.S. spent 4 percent of its wealth on defense; Singapore spent 4.1 percent. The rest trailed far behind, ranging from 0.9 percent in Japan to 1 to 2 percent in Indonesia, Thailand and Australia and to 2 and 2.6 percent in Taiwan, India and South Korea.

Asians often complain about the overwhelming presence of U.S. forces, which American taxpayers pay for. Those Americans would surely be glad if Asian taxpayers picked up some of that burden.