With its last combat troops withdrawn safely over the Iraqi border, and thousands more shortly to abandon operations in Afghanistan, the American military has fully embraced the post September 11 era. Whatever challenges the future holds, the time when Washington lavished trillions of dollars on invading and overthrowing hostile regimes has, it seems, come to an end.

In Syria, the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashir al-Assad is every bit as brutal as Saddam Hussein’s regime was, and continues to threaten the security of Israel. Iran, meanwhile, shows little inclination to comply with the UN’s demand to freeze its nuclear programme, while North Korea, another of the world’s notorious proliferators, marked the death of Kim Jong-il by firing a short-range missile off the east coast of the volatile Korean peninsula. But the world’s tyrants, no matter how great their provocation, can sleep easy in their beds. For Uncle Sam has lost his bottle.

That, at least, seems to be the logical conclusion to draw from the Obama administration’s unseemly rush for the exit from the various theatres of combat it entered after the September 11 attacks.

You could argue that the Iraq withdrawal was long overdue; that after eight years of hostilities, the Americans had outstayed their welcome and it was time to come home. My view is that, having invested so much blood and treasure in steering the country towards something approaching a functioning democracy, Obama had a moral obligation to ensure that he got the best possible deal for the nation once the troops were gone.

But with re-election topping the White House agenda, getting the troops home for Christmas was the priority. Involvement in Afghanistan is another victim of the electoral cycle. Less than two years after Mr Obama announced his bold counter-insurgency strategy to defeat the Taliban, the US has effectively run up the white flag by ordering the withdrawal of the extra troops deployed as part of last year’s “surge”. This was against the advice of military chiefs, who argued for delaying any such move until their twin goals of defeating the insurgents and forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table had been achieved.

While these were both essentially political accommodations, they will have a profound impact on the way the American military deals with future security challenges. The new paradigm, in which Washington limits any engagement to the bare minimum, was very much in evidence during Nato’s intervention in Libya. The US took the lead in the opening salvoes of the campaign, and then withdrew to a supporting role, leaving Britain and France to remove Gaddafi from power. A similarly hands-off approach is evident in Washington’s attitude to threats such as those posed by Iran and North Korea, and the al-Qaeda terror cells in Yemen, Somalia and north Africa. Rather than launching large-scale ground invasions, America is increasingly relying on smart technology to confront its enemies. Computer viruses, such as Stuxnet, are used to cripple the nuclear programmes of rogue regimes, while drone strikes are deployed to liquidate terror cells – the attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the terrorist behind the Detroit underpants bomb plot, serves as a prime example of the new technology’s effectiveness. Nor is the American military completely opposed to this new way of doing business. Comparisons between America’s Iraq experience and Vietnam are specious: there was no ignominious scramble to the rooftops of the US embassy in Baghdad to hitch a ride on the last helicopter, and the withdrawal to Kuwait was conducted in an orderly fashion without a shot fired in anger.

But the US military nevertheless bears deep psychological scars from fighting a campaign in Iraq that soon became as unpopular with the American public as the Vietnam war. Consequently, many senior commanders have adopted a “never again” attitude when it comes to assessing the security threats of the future.

Add to this the requirement to cut a mind-boggling $1 trillion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade and it is easy to see how America is losing its status as the world’s undisputed military superpower.

This might explain why the People’s Republic of China has suddenly acquired an interest in building a fleet of aircraft carriers that will enable it to defend its newly-acquired interests in the Middle East and Africa, over which Washington has previously enjoyed undisputed hegemony. Even the Russians seem to have woken up to America’s disappearance from the world stage. Moscow recently dispatched the aircraft-carrying missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov and two escort ships to the Syrian port of Tartus, thereby sending a signal that there will be no Libyan-style intervention to overthrow the regime of Russia’s long-standing regional ally.

That said, it would be premature in the extreme to write off the military’s resolve to confront America’s enemies when the occasion demands. General Martin Dempsey, the recently appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, recently reassured his fellow officers that, even allowing for the drastic cuts to the defence budget, the military will be the same size it was before the September 11 attacks. And, if memory serves me correctly, that was still many times more powerful than its nearest rival.          –Telegraph