Bush’s Move to Share Buildup Costs Mirrors U.S. Shift in Military Role : Deployment: Nation no longer sees itself as the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ Analysts point to a possible resurgence of isolationism.


President Bush’s plea to U.S. allies to share in the financial burden of the Middle East crisis reflects a major change since the Vietnam War in America’s view of its military role in the world.

Throughout most of the 20th Century, the United States has seen itself as the “arsenal of democracy” and a principal financier in times of war. But over the past decade, Americans have become increasingly less willing to assume the burden for defending the Western world.

Some analysts, such as Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, see this shift as a resurgence of isolationism in the United States that began after the nation’s long and costly military adventure in Vietnam.


“There are a lot of people in the United States who believe that we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman,” Shelby said.

But others think this new attitude is rooted primarily in global economics. Americans no longer feel it is fair for the deficit-ridden United States to shoulder most of the burden for the defense of nations such as Japan and West Germany, which are currently cash-rich.

“We once were the economic and military leaders of the world,” said Ronald J. Bartek, a House Armed Services Committee expert on allied burden-sharing. “We still have the world’s best military, but we no longer have the world’s leading economy.”

Whatever the reason, this change in American attitudes was something that Bush could not ignore as he geared up for what may be a long commitment that so far has cost U.S. taxpayers an extra $46 million a day.

At a meeting with Bush earlier this week, members of Congress told the President bluntly that the U.S. military deployment in the Middle East would quickly lose popular support across the nation unless Japan, West Germany and other allies, as well as the the Arab nations, carry more of the financial burden. The issue is expected to be debated at length when Congress reconvenes next week.

Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.), the Senate’s most outspoken critic of the role that U.S. allies play in their own defense, said Americans are demanding to know why the United States has assumed the major burden in opposing Iraqi aggression when the Japanese are more dependent on Middle East oil and the oil-rich Arab nations have more at stake in this confrontation.

“Everywhere I go, people are saying, ‘These other countries have to help us,’ ” Dixon said. “American taxpayers think: ‘Uncle Sam always pays, and in the end that is me.’ ”

Modern history is filled with examples of America’s role as financier of wars.

Even before the United States entered World War I, it loaned huge sums of money to the Allies at standard interest rates. And ultimately, while more than 100,000 Americans died in that war, perhaps the most significant American contribution was in financing and producing weapons for the Allied victory.

In World War II, U.S. involvement began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program, under which he loaned equipment to the democratic enemies of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States became the chief Allied military force and later poured billions of dollars of aid into Europe under the Marshall Plan.

And during the Korean War, which--like the Iraqi blockade--was regarded as a United Nations action, the United States received only limited allied support.

It was not until the United States’ agonizing defeat in Vietnam that Americans began to complain that their country could not always be “the world’s policeman.” And since the end of that war, there has been a residual reluctance to get involved in Third World conflicts.

Over the past decade, a swelling chorus of members of Congress has been demanding an increased financial commitment from NATO allies for the defense of Europe and a greater Japanese role in the security of the Pacific region. This led to some U.S. troop reductions in Europe and the Pacific as well as cuts in military construction outside the United States.

In addition, there now appears to be growing congressional sentiment for a cut in U.S. troops in Korea, another nation whose economy has soared in recent years.

In Congress, it is clear that the economic realities of the 1980s have overcome whatever lingering sentiment there was from the post-World War II era that Germany and Japan should never again be allowed to pose a military threat to other nations.

“I don’t think that it’s an accident that our burden-sharing controversy reached its peak in the 1980s as our deficit mounted and as Americans felt themselves coming under greater economic pressure from our allies in the global markets,” said Ted Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who headed a special House panel that explored the issue of military burden-sharing two years ago, said Americans are furious that Japan and West Germany are heavily dependent on the United States for their defense while they appear to be beating the U.S. in the world marketplace.

She said the NATO imbalance is particularly frustrating for Americans now that the Soviet threat to Europe appears to have diminished and Germany is on the verge of reunification. It is estimated that 60% of the U.S. defense budget is aimed at defending Europe.

As Schroeder puts it, “Everybody on Main Street is saying, ‘You mean we’ve got 300,000 Americans over there to protect West Germany against East Germany, and all of the East Germans are shopping at the malls in West Germany? You mean we’re keeping the Pacific safe so that the Japanese can ship us Subarus?’ ”

Times staff writer Stanley Meisler contributed to this report.