In Our View: U.S. Must Turn in Badge

Crisis in Iraq shows its unofficial role as the world's police force is unsustainable

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In speaking Friday about the unraveling situation in Iraq, President Obama touched upon a viewpoint that could — and should — inform American foreign policy for the immediate future. “Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force,” he said.

And there was more:

“Iraq’s leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises.”

“Iraq’s neighbors also have some responsibilities to support this process.”

“The United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems.”

Obama spoke of “our partnership with other countries across the region.” He said, “There’s never going to be stability in Iraq or the broader region unless there are political outcomes to allow people to resolve their differences peacefully, without resorting to war or relying on the United States military.” He added, “Ultimately, they’re going to have to seize it. As I said before, we are not going to be able to do it for them.”

Translation for these statements, which were interspersed throughout a press conference: The United States will not continue to be the world’s police force.

This represents a change from U.S. foreign policy of the past several decades, and it is a reasonable and necessary one. For too long, the United States has been looked upon — and acted as — the world’s principal, handing out punishment and rapping knuckles whenever the pupils step out of line.

The results of such policy have been mixed, and the current situation in Iraq points out its shortcomings. After eight years of American involvement that ended in December 2011, Iraq now has devolved into chaos. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a terrorist organization, has been seizing cities and unraveling the precarious gains that were forged with billions of U.S. dollars and thousands of American lives. The situation is frustrating for American interests and devastating for the families of those who sacrificed life or limb in an attempt to build security for Iraq. “Our troops and the American people and the American taxpayers made huge investments and sacrifices in order to give Iraqis the opportunity to chart a better course, a better destiny,” Obama said.

The costs have been enormous; the successes have been fragile. But the U.S. military influence is far from limited to the Middle East. As of 2010, according to Politifact.com, the United States maintained 662 foreign military bases in 38 countries, and a total of 13 nations harbored at least 1,000 U.S. military personnel. As of 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. military budget of $640 billion was greater than the next eight countries combined.

Certainly, there are situations where American intervention is necessary. As Clive Crook wrote for Bloomberg View, “The U.S. is very good at all-or-nothing situations, but all-or-nothing situations don’t often arise.” But as Americans move forward and adjust to a vastly changing world landscape, it is crucial for the rest of the world’s democracies to play a role in defending their interests. It is necessary for our country to stop being the world’s police force. And, in this particular case, it is time for Iraqis to defend their nation against insurgents.