The Cold War may have ended, but Washington policymakers don’t seem to have noticed. America, facing no serious security threats, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the globe’s military spending. Our expenditures outpace those of Russia by three or more to one; America spends twice as much as Britain, France, Germany, and Japan combined. What for? During the Cold War the doctrine of containment provided a coherent rationale for a large military in advanced outposts around the globe. That justification has obviously vanished, so today policymakers are busy concocting new “vital” missions to replace that of resisting communism. The most obvious is Bosnia, where the United States Army has been sent to police a tragic but strategically unimportant civil war on the fringes of another continent. President Clinton called it vital, but this is the same President who argued that restoring a demagogue to power in Haiti was “vital.”

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration is hardly alone in concocting stupid new duties for the American military. For instance, former Secretary of State James Baker worries that “NATO remains an organization in search of a mission.” He is not the first person to make such an observation. In the aftermath of communism’s 1989 implosion, NATO fans became quite creative at proposing new roles for what was until then the quintessential anti-Soviet alliance. Robert Hormats, currently vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, argued that Western leaders should “expand the range of issues on which NATO engages the common efforts of the European and North American democracies—from student exchanges, to fighting the drug trade, to resisting terrorism, to countering threats to the environment.” Hormats was not alone in believing that a military alliance could be transformed into a combination student exchange service and public-sector version of Greenpeace. Former U.S. NATO Ambassador David Abshire insisted that NATO “could coordinate the transfer of environmental-control and energy-conservation technology to the East, thereby benefiting the global ecology.” All that was missing was a proposal to turn American tanks into bookmobiles to be sent throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

But as the post-Cold War era has turned out to be less stable and more contentious than originally hoped, members of the NATO Forever Club have come to believe that they are more likely to save NATO if they can preserve its military character. Thus, James Baker’s solution: redefine the alliance’s role to permit “military action anywhere and under any circumstances when [Europe’s] peace and stability is threatened.” He cited as an example the Balkans, and proposed warning “all of Macedonia’s neighbors—Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and, yes, even NATO-member Greece—that any adventurism in Macedonia would be considered a threat to European peace and stability and would be met with the full force of the alliance.” Thus, the United States would move from defending states it has long considered to be important for American security to protecting a brand new country lacking even an implausible connection to American interests. Perhaps even more incredibly. Baker would have NATO shift from protecting member nations from outsiders to protecting outsiders from member nations.

Of course, Baker is not the only person to consider the Balkans worthy of military involvement. Before President Clinton, with congressional acquiescence, plunged American forces into the region to keep a dubious peace, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times called on America to use its forces to rescue British and French “peacekeeping” troops, if they were stranded in Bosnia. Unlike President Clinton, Friedman did not believe that the Balkans mattered. Friedman professed that “I don’t give two cents about Bosnia. Not two cents. The people there have brought on their troubles.” However, he felt “loyalty to the allies who have put their own troops into harm’s way.” Now, Britain and France are perfectly nice places to visit, but they arc grown-up countries and walked into danger with full knowledge of what they were getting into. Both have significant and sophisticated militaries of their own. Why should it be America’s job to rescue their troops?

About all that can be said of Friedman’s idea was that it was not quite as crazy as that of William Odom of the Hudson Institute, who wanted Washington to insert 100,000 soldiers into the Balkans as an occupation army to force an end to the war. What American interest warranted that kind of commitment, and what specific settlement would be fair, he never said; nor did he explain why the tragedy in Bosnia deserved such a commitment while those in, say, Angola or Armenia or Sudan did not. At least President Clinton waited for a semblance of peace, even though the half-life of the peace agreement could be months.

Of course, the lack of serious interests in a region has not stopped the administration from seeking to extend NATO to Moscow’s doorstep and convince Russia that expanding the formerly anti-Soviet alliance is a friendly act. Countries like Hungary and Rumania hope to use the so-called Partnership for Peace as a way station to full alliance membership. Although Moscow’s military is nearly as decrepit as its economy, and Russia’s primary challenge today is simply to hold itself together, the administration wants to defend not only populous and prosperous Western Europe, but also Central and Eastern European nations barely five years removed from the Warsaw Pact. Even that fails to satisfy George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal, who wants to “extend NATO’s protection to Georgia and Azerbaijan.” Some people, like Alexander Haig, have even proposed including Russia in NATO, which would effectively turn the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into the North Atlantic-North Pacific Treaty Organization. Perhaps the alliance could next invite, say, China to join.

Indeed, what country should not sign up? The administration wants to move NATO south as well as east. Washington, at Europe’s urging, would insert what formally remains the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization into North and West Africa to act as an anti-Islamic bulwark. Former NATO Secretary General Willy Claes, for instance, charged (in a statement that he later recanted) that Islam poses as great a threat today as communism did in the past. Another European official warned that North Africa’s population is growing much faster than that of Europe. “Given the demographic gap, the eventual outcome is predictable. The West is destined to succumb,” he warned.

Supposedly so serious is this possibility that alliance officials are demanding an official Western response. “For the past two years, the main concern among NATO’s military strategic experts has been the southern threat,” explained another unnamed European source. Thus, NATO officials have begun a dialogue with Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, and, yes, Mauritania. The goal, it is said, is a North African version of the Partnership for Peace. One NATO official anonymously called for military involvement in Morocco and Tunisia: “You could have a preventive deployment of forces on the requests of those governments.”

But then, to listen to the Heritage Foundation, there are other reasons to bring Morocco into a dialogue with NATO. According to analyst James Phillips, Morocco “was a key U.S. ally during the Cold War, cooperating with Washington to contain Soviet influence in the Middle East and Africa.” Really? However soothing King Hassan’s words, they did not have much to do with Libya’s terrorist activities, Egypt’s expulsion of Soviet advisors, the switch in allegiance of Ethiopia and Somalia with America and the Soviet Union, or the friendship with Moscow of Syria’s Assad. Anyway, how about today? “Morocco has become a bulwark of stability in a volatile region,” explains Phillips. Consequently, Washington needs to “cooperate with Morocco in containing radical Middle Eastern states and Muslim extremism.” In particular, he argues, America needs to develop contingency plans in case Algeria’s military government falls to fundamentalist Muslims, build and even operate surveillance radars, and possibly jointly support anti-Islamic groups.

Nor is that all. Phillips wants the United States to “seek to deprive Algerian Islamists of external support. The U.S. needs to increase economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran and Sudan, which aid Algerian Islamists, and cooperate with European allies to reduce the flow of arms and money from Algerian expatriates in Europe.” Yet what does America have to fear from Muslims in Algeria, Muslims who won a free election, only to see their victory voided by the military? They have no interest in carrying conflict to America—unless Washington turns itself into a target by targeting the ancient religion. And especially by working with Morocco, hardly a paragon of democratic virtue.

But Morocco and Algeria are not our only interests in Africa, in the opinion of some pundits. Columnist B.J. Cutler, for instance, demands action in the Sudan—an “economic embargo and a blockade to stop arms and aviation fuel from reaching Sudan.” Why should we intervene there? Well, he writes, the nation “borders on Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It threatens to export instability and Muslim fundamentalism.” Yet the Sudan has been in chaos and immersed in civil war for a decade. Countries like Libya already suffer under bizarre tyrannies. Nations like Zaire long ago descended into chaos, without help from Sudan. Moreover, the fact that so many countries surround the Sudan suggests that enforcing an embargo would be no easy task. Tragic Sudan is. Require American intervention it does not.

Then there’s Burundi. With this Central African nation threatening to go up in flames again, Thomas Friedman wants America to “use [its] power to try to stop potential genocide.” Pauline Baker of the Fund for Peace and Lionel Rosenblatt of Refugees International contend that the United States should send troops now, since if it “does not take the lead in pushing for early intervention, we may be drawn in anyway.” But why Burundi and not Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tajikistan, and Uganda, to name just a few murderous hellholes past and present? American soldiers should be able to enjoy the fact that America is at peace, just like the civilians they are defending.

Moving further around the globe we come to Burma, which has not been important strategically since World War II. But columnist Lally Weymouth calls for “direct or covert military action—or bilateral action with the Chinese,” to eradicate drug producers in the Southeast Asian state. What makes Burma so critical? Many countries produce drugs, and America does not—at least, not yet—invade them. Indeed, Washington cannot even eliminate the domestic demand for illicit substances. How, then, can it claim the right to bomb producers halfway around the globe? Using this precedent, Saudi Arabia could rightly strike, say, a beer producer in Milwaukee. What of Weymouth’s proposal to cooperate with China in military operations? Perhaps she should ask other nations in the region, including American allies like Thailand, which fear Beijing.

In fact, because of China the New York Times‘ Friedman, fresh from demanding American involvement in the Balkans and Burundi, calls for “dusting off” the charter of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which collapsed back in 1977. He hopes that engagement with China will moderate its activities, but wants the United States to maintain its forces in the Far East and to undertake “hidden containment.” But why should America take the lead when the threat is regional rather than global, and containable by prosperous and populous regional powers? The United States established its dominant military role in East Asia when hegemonic communism seemed on the move around the globe and there were no effective regional counterweights. Today, the potential Chinese threat does not extend to the United States, and a combination of such nations as Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and even Vietnam could cooperate to offset and deter Chinese aggression. Washington should encourage them to create their own SEATO—like today’s ASEAN—without the United States as a member.

Then there is Cambodia. Richard Fisher of Heritage wants to provide economic and military aid to Cambodia, as well as work with Thailand and, yes, Vietnam—which at last notice was still communist—”to promote democratic and free-market economic reforms in Cambodia.” Fisher would also pressure Bangkok into allowing America to pre-position war materials in Thailand “in order to deter conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.” Alas, it is hard to imagine that either Kim Jong II or Saddam Hussein would be frightened by a few tanks stationed in Thailand. Especially Kim Jong II, since Thailand is further from Korea than Guam and barely closer than Wake Island. The North Korean dictator would probably be more impressed if increasingly wealthy South Korea upped its own defense outlays.

Speaking of Korea, more than a few policymakers and analysts have proposed bombing the North if it refuses to concede its nuclear potential. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, argues “we should also develop options to destroy the North Korean nuclear complex in a preventive military strike,” a step feared by the South Koreans—who obviously have the greatest interest in forestalling a nuclearized North—because it could easily start a full-scale war on the peninsula. Even people less inclined to pour gasoline and then toss a lighted match on the most militarized chunk of ground on earth would have the United States increase its conventional military presence in the South. Columnist Tony Snow wants America to “get tough” and to “send in reinforcements if the South Koreans and our other regional allies agree.” Why shouldn’t they? They have enjoyed American protection for decades and have no reason to stop now.

Indeed, these days Americans routinely insist that other countries allow us to defend them. Fisher, for instance, said at the height of the North Korean nuclear scare, “South Korea must be defended.” Certainly, but why by the United States? Seoul has some 18 times the economic strength and twice the population of Pyongyang. Why American taxpayers, who are each already spending more than Korean citizens just to defend Korea, should pay even more is not immediately obvious. Washington’s allies have become a bunch of international welfare queens.

As we move closer to home, narcotics is the favorite justification for foreign intervention, including possible military action. Former drug czar William Bennett and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, for instance, have demanded that the administration “stiffen its spine and show some resolve in its anti-drug efforts” in response to the “narcodemocracy” of Colombia. The Heritage Foundation’s John Sweeney proposes that the United States “consider every possible avenue for compelling the Colombian government to crack down on” drug cartels. Including, one wonders, nuclear strikes? After all. Representative Dan Burton, chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, wants to “send in some of our people” to arrest Colombian drug producers and suggests stationing aircraft carriers loaded with herbicides off of Bolivia and Peru to implement, apparently forcibly, drug eradication programs. Well, why not? What else are we going to do with our fleets, as the Red Navy rusts in port and sells its carriers for scrap?

The world remains a dangerous place, even after the end of the Cold War, but the form of danger—and especially the risk to the United States—is quite different. Today, anyway, not all international problems are our problems. Rather than dreaming up new purposes for Cold War institutions and forces, policymakers should stop encouraging Washington to act as an international cop out to police the rest of the globe. Then we could turn the Pentagon into a true Department of Defense and cut the military budget accordingly, finally allowing the American people, who spent some $13 trillion (in today’s dollars) to win the Cold War, to enjoy the fruits of their costly victory.