In the year AD 122 the Emperor Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire, ordered the building of a wall across the entire island that we now know as the United Kingdom, roughly on a line with the modern-day division between England and Scotland. The wall, manned by three Roman legions, was to mark the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. South of the wall was Roman Britain. North of the wall was territory to be left to the barbarian Scots.
As a man of Scottish descent, I have no doubt regaled my children on countless occasions with this story as proof, if any were necessary, of the martial prowess of the Scottish people. Even the mighty Roman legions could not vanquish the Scots. They would remain free.
The truth, as it so often is, may be a bit more pragmatic and prosaic. What Hadrian was saying when he built the wall was not so much that he could not conquer the Scots as that it was not worth the cost in blood and treasure to do so. The Romans had been into Scotland. They knew it was populated by shaggy cattle and equally shaggy men and women and that all these creatures huddled together in crude stone huts.
There was nothing there worth having, at least not at the cost that conquest would entail. This was a cold, hard calculus based on Hadrian's estimate of what was best for the overall health of the Roman Empire. Conquering Scotland was not in the "national interest" of Rome.
We would do well to remember Hadrian's example today. Recent evidence suggests, however, that we do not. Instead we appear to be casting about for a principle to guide our actions abroad.
For eight years under Barack Obama we pursued a foreign policy that was equal parts naiveté and self-loathing. Most difficulties with foreign nations we apparently considered to be the result of simple misunderstandings that could be resolved over cookies and milk. More intractable problems we decided were likely our fault.
The result was predictable. Unwilling to stand up to anyone or for anything we were kicked around all over the planet. In 2011, having won the civil war that followed our invasion of Iraq, we then precipitously withdrew virtually all our forces from that deeply fractured nation. An explosion of violence and the birth of ISIS resulted.
We watched with dismay as the Chinese seized the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategic waterways and fortified that body of water with heavily militarized artificial islands. Not surprisingly, our hand wringing and calls for dialogue fell on deaf ears.
Russia ate the Crimea and started a low-level proxy war against Ukraine. We did nothing.
We dismantled the entire sanctions regime that had kept Iran contained for forty years and walked away from our key Sunni Middle Eastern allies. Iran responded by exploding across the entire regime, setting nations on fire and destabilizing friendly regimes. Iraq is now perhaps two steps away from becoming a puppet state of Iran.
This then is the legacy of a foreign policy, which apparently found almost nothing to be of sufficient import as to rise to the level of mattering in terms of our national interest. In all of American history we have never seen such a succession of strategic disasters.
To be fair, however, the preceding eight years of the Bush Administration, while radically different in outlook and approach, were almost as damaging to American interests. Where Obama found nothing worth fighting for, Bush apparently found virtually everything worth the commitment of American forces and American money.
We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to avenge 9/11 and depose a hostile regime. We accomplished that mission in a matter of months with a handful of men on the ground, US air power and native allies. Instead of then installing a friendly ruler, providing him with the minimal support necessary to remain in power and going home, we then embarked on an open-ended, ruinously expensive exercise in nation building.
Seventeen years on we are still at it. We have spent over $1 trillion on the conflict to date. There is no end in sight and no clear definition of an acceptable end state.
We invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose Saddam Hussein and end the threat of Iraqi aggression. In a matter of weeks, we crushed the Iraqi Army, seized Baghdad and took control of Iraq. Then, instead of focusing on stability and the installation of a government friendly to our interests, we dissolved all of the security and governmental structures of the Baathist state and undertook the mission of transforming Iraqi culture, society and political structure.
We took the lid off a pressure cooker. Iraq, an artificial structure riven with deep tribal, ethnic and religious divisions, exploded into violence. One hundred and sixty thousand American troops, sent there to fight a conventional war became the police, firefighters and administrators in a nation at war with itself.
Fifteen years later we are still trying to contain the damage. Four thousand five hundred Americans have been killed in Iraq. Over thirty thousand have been wounded. The total cost for military operations abroad since 9/11 is now approaching $6 Trillion. Most of that money was borrowed. Interest payments alone on the debt incurred from operations abroad in the last seventeen years now total $10 million an hour.
Hadrian did not build his wall and abandon any hopes of annexing Scotland, because he judged the Romans could not win. He made the decision, because he judged that the empire would be stronger and more vital for not taking on the task. He understood not just that continued expansion northward would be costly but that the cost would be such that the empire would be weakened not strengthened by continued conquest and the cost that would entail.
This then is the calculus we must master. We cannot default to the Obama fantasy that there is no need to fight or to use our power abroad. If we do so we will fall victim to the brutal, tyrannical forces loose in the world.
By the same token, we cannot afford to pretend that our resources are infinite and that we can continue to embark on adventures abroad without sober judgment and careful consideration. We live in a wealthy nation. We do not live in one with endless supplies of cash. We have the world's most powerful military. Its use, however, means the expenditure of the most precious resource we possess, our fighting men and women.
Two thousand years ago Hadrian stood in what is now the United Kingdom, made the hard call necessary to sustain the empire he ruled and elected to wage war only when and where it was necessary for the betterment of the Roman people. We must be prepared to make the same kind of hard, pragmatic decisions today if we are to survive.