During the Cold War, the United States modified this strategy. It still depended on allies, but it now saw itself as the first responder. Partly this could be seen in U.S. nuclear strategy. This could also be seen in Korea and Vietnam, where allies played subsidiary roles, but the primary effort was American. The Cold War was fought on a different set of principles than the two world wars.
The Cold War strategy was applied to the war against radical Islamism, in which the United States -- because of 9/11 but also because of a mindset that could be seen in other interventions -- was the first responder. Other allies followed the United States' lead and provided support to the degree to which they felt comfortable. The allies could withdraw without fundamentally undermining the war effort. The United States could not.
The approach in the U.S.-jihadist war was a complete reversal from the approach taken in the two world wars. This was understandable given that it was triggered by an unexpected and catastrophic event, the reponse to which flowed from a lack of intelligence. When Japan struck Pearl Harbor, emotions were at least as intense, but U.S. strategy in the Pacific was measured and cautious. And the enemy's capabilities were much better understood.
Stepping Back as Global Policeman
The United States cannot fight a war against radical Islamism and win, and it certainly cannot be the sole actor in a war waged primarily in the Eastern Hemisphere. This is why the French intervention in Mali is particularly interesting. France retains interests in its former colonial empire in Africa, and Mali is at the geographic center of these interests. To the north of Mali is Algeria, where France has significant energy investments; to the east of Mali is Niger, where France has a significant stake in the mining of mineral resources, particularly uranium; and to the south of Mali is Ivory Coast, where France plays a major role in cocoa production. The future of Mali matters to France far more than it matters to the United States.
What is most interesting is the absence of the United States in the fight, even if it is providing intelligence and other support, such as mobilizing ground forces from other African countries. The United States is not acting as if this is its fight; it is acting as if this is the fight of an ally, whom it might help in extremis, but not in a time when U.S. assistance is unnecessary. And if the French can't mount an effective operation in Mali, then little help can be given.
This changing approach is also evident in Syria, where the United States has systematically avoided anything beyond limited and covert assistance, and Libya, where the United States intervened after the French and British launched an attack they could not sustain. That was, I believe, a turning point, given the unsatisfactory outcome there. Rather than accepting a broad commitment against radical Islamism everywhere, the United States is allowing the burden to shift to powers that have direct interests in these areas.
Reversing a strategy is difficult. It is uncomfortable for any power to acknowledge that it has overreached, which the United States did both in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is even more difficult to acknowledge that the goals set by President George W. Bush in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan lacked coherence. But clearly the war has run its course, and what is difficult is also obvious. We are not going to eliminate the threat of radical Islamism. The commitment of force to an unattainable goal twists national strategy out of shape and changes the fabric of domestic life. Obviously, overwatch must be in place against the emergence of an organization like al Qaeda, with global reach, sophisticated operatives and operational discipline. But this is very different from responding to jihadists in Mali, where the United States has limited interests and fewer resources.
Accepting an ongoing threat is also difficult. Mitigating the threat of an enemy rather than defeating the enemy outright goes against an impulse. But it is not something alien to American strategy. The United States is involved in the world, and it can't follow the founders' dictum of staying out of European struggles. But the United States has the option of following U.S. strategy in the two world wars. The United States was patient, accepted risks and shifted the burden to others, and when it acted, it acted out of necessity, with clearly defined goals matched by capabilities. Waiting until there is no choice but to go to war is not isolationism. Allowing others to carry the primary risk is not disengagement. Waging wars that are finite is not irresponsible.
The greatest danger of war is what it can do to one's own society, changing the obligations of citizens and reshaping their rights. The United States has always done this during wars, but those wars would always end. Fighting a war that cannot end reshapes domestic life permanently. A strategy that compels engagement everywhere will exhaust a country. No empire can survive the imperative of permanent, unwinnable warfare. It is fascinating to watch the French deal with Mali. It is even more fascinating to watch the United States wishing them well and mostly staying out of it. It has taken about 10 years, but here we can see the American system stabilize itself by mitigating the threats that can't be eliminated and refusing to be drawn into fights it can let others handle.