Niall Ferguson: The Real Costs of Isolationism

People outside the 2012 Republican candidates debate in New Hampshire. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP-Getty Images

Bring the troops home. Considering how polarized American politics is supposed to be, the consensus on this one point verges on the supernatural.

President Obama recently announced a new schedule for scaling down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. A total of 10,000 men will come home this year and a further 20,000 by the end of next summer. The surge is over.

This is not a declaration of victory. It is a declaration of bankruptcy. "From a fiscal standpoint, we're spending too much money on Iraq and Afghanistan," a senior administration official told The New York Times. "There's a belief from a fiscal standpoint that this is cannibalizing too much of our spending."

There was a time when Republicans—and not a few Democrats—would have been dismayed by such a retreat. Yet in their televised debate just a few days before the president's announcement, the Republican presidential hopefuls vied with one another to out-dove him.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney took the lead: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they're able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban." That was the Freudian slip of the week.

Ron Paul was not to be outdone: "I'd bring them home as quickly as possible. And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen. And I'd quit bombing Pakistan." Tea Party queen Michele Bachmann also wanted out of Libya: "We were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest…The president was absolutely wrong in his decision on Libya." And former House speaker Newt Gingrich itched to "say to the generals, 'We would like to figure out [how] to get out as rapid [sic] as possible with the safety of the troops involved.' "

Only Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum showed any sign of remembering that troops are in Afghanistan because it was there that Al Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks. But neither made any serious attempt to challenge the majority view: America has to bring home the troops because (in Ron Paul's words) "we could save hundreds of billions of dollars"—a view also endorsed by a late entrant to the GOP nomination race, Jon Huntsman.

Welcome to the brave new world of IOU-solationism—the theory that strategic calculation takes second place to nasty fiscal arithmetic. After all, as former secretary of state James Baker has pointed out, interest payments on the federal debt could exceed defense spending in less than a decade. The Congressional Budget Office has even figured out how much cash could be saved by reducing the number of war-ready troops to just 45,000 by 2015: more than $400 billion over the next five years.

The United States certainly needs to get its fiscal house in order. But any serious analysis of the benefits of defense cuts needs to consider the potential costs of walking away from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn't noticed.

In any case, it's manifestly untrue to claim that "Bush's wars" are the principal cause of our current fiscal malaise. The defense budget last year was 4.7 percent of GDP (higher than at any time under Bush), but the cost of Social Security plus Medicare plus Medicaid was 10.3 percent.

Democrats and Republicans alike need to remind themselves of two stark realities. It's not defense spending that's bankrupting America; it's the spiraling cost of entitlements as the baby boomers retire. Meanwhile, the world beyond our borders isn't getting any safer (just watch Yemen).

IOU-solationism may poll well. A real leader will dismiss it as a false economy.