US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Baghdad last week to witness the last of American combat forces in Iraq furl their colours and prepare to leave after nearly 10 years of battle.
In the long term, the withdrawal of US troops may well mark the end of an era that began 70 years ago when the US entered the second world war. Since then, the prevailing strategy has been a combination of diplomatic, economic and military intervention almost anywhere in the world. Former president John F. Kennedy set the interventionist rallying cry in his 1961 inaugural address: 'Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'
Today, with polls showing that 75per cent of Americans approve of the withdrawal from Iraq, a war-weary and economically depressed people seem ready to have their armed forces and diplomats pull back from troubles elsewhere. Calls for retrenchment have become persistent.
Retrenchment would set the proper course in national security for the foreseeable future, in the view of some strategic thinkers. It would include reducing military commitments, deployments and spending; getting the budget deficit under control; and demanding that political leaders quit bickering. An imperative: retrenchment would require US allies to assume more of the burden for the common defence.
Retrenchment does not mean returning to isolation behind the Atlantic and Pacific moats, even though that tradition dates back to the early days of the nation.
Charles Kupchan, of Georgetown University, says the US 'must rebalance means and ends by pursuing a judicious retrenchment'. 'The nation,' he has written, 'needs to bring its strategic commitments back into line with its interests, resources, and public will'.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has indicated the US is heading in this direction: 'In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values.'
Retrenchment will apply only marginally to Asia and the Pacific; a task for American statecraft over the next decade, she wrote in Foreign Policy, 'will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment - diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise - in the Asia-Pacific region'.
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington