“Why are we closing schools in the United States and building schools in Afghanistan?”

This was a question recently put to me by a Somali-born taxi driver. Though he may be a newly minted citizen, he cut right to the chase of how Americans feel about foreign policy these days.

These feelings are only amplified by the worries Americans have about the economy, jobs and the massive debts the government is piling up — even with the new debt-ceiling compromise.


Americans look at how much our foreign engagements cost, how many troops we’ve lost, and wonder whether all those sacrifices are even making a difference. In a time of austerity, the instinct is to retrench.

Politicians are quick to pick up the mood. “It is time to focus on nation building here at home.” “It is time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.” “Definitely, get American troops out faster.” “Funds must be fully cut off [to the Libya operation].” “I’m tired of Afghanistan and Iraq, too. I think we need to get out.”

Those are the words of the president and some of his declared Republican opponents. The pendulum is swinging far and fast — from a robust war footing in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror, to throwing everything out the window.

But what about the opposite set of questions? Not “How do you feel about sending money and troops abroad?” Instead: “How would you feel about another terrorist attack against America, maybe this one by Gadhafi? About the Taliban giving al-Qaeda a fresh home in Afghanistan? A new civil war in Iraq? Iran getting a nuclear weapon? What about lashings for girls just for attending school, or executions of ‘collaborators’ who worked with the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan?”

The public’s answer here, I believe, would be that we don’t want those things, either — but that the United States can’t do everything, everywhere.

That is a far more serious answer, demanding more serious leadership from our politicians. We need a realistic strategy for what to do — how to advance our national security within our means. Not simply to retrench, not simply to keep pouring on the gas.

Take Afghanistan: As U.S. ambassador to NATO, I argued strongly for more troops and more Allied contributions in order to get the job done. We got more troops for a while, but we also got deadlines, troop limits and now withdrawals. With voters already worried about their wallets, the emphasis on limits only causes voters to wonder why we are there at all. If it is OK to withdraw 30,000 troops, why not 40,000, or 60,000? Or all of them? Political leaders need to articulate clear national interests, clear goals we can achieve within our resources, and unwavering determination to succeed. It is OK to fight, provided you are in it to win.

The same on Libya: Make the case for why removing Gadhafi is a U.S. interest (and I believe it is) and voters will want to get it done — the quicker the better. But fudge that by limiting the U.S. role and launching an ill-defined mission to protect civilians — yet not remove Gadhafi — and after four months the voters are lost.

Each of the declared political candidates — and Gov. Rick Perry, if he joins the fray — should offer a vision for a serious national security strategy appropriate for an age of austerity. What should our nation do and why? Not a statement of what to cut and how fast, but the positives:

What are the goals our country should achieve, and how we should go about them? At the moment, no candidate is offering such a vision.

The United States still has the biggest economy in the world, the biggest defense establishment in the world and the largest set of complex interests in the world. Our well-being depends upon security, freedom and prosperity throughout the world.

Nations around the world depend on us as an honest broker, to maintain stability and to balance out more worrying regional actors.

The United States still carries great moral force based on our democracy and justice at home. We remain the beacon for millions who seek to immigrate to our shores.

The United States is uniquely able to rally alliances and shape the global security environment.

We have the ability to multiply our strengths by being joined by the political, psychological, moral, economic and military contributions of others.

But for America to live up to this potential, it requires a vision, a will and a realism about resources. What voters really want is a strategy for our national security, not a retreat. That’s what America’s next president — whether Barack Obama or one of his challengers — needs to offer.

Kurt Volker is a former US ambassador to NATO. He is now Managing Director, International, for BGR Group as well as Senior Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His email address is KVolker@bgrdc.com. This article was first published at The Dallas Morning News