If you’re the kind of American citizen who occasionally wonders if U.S. drone strikes will still be shredding Afghani weddings in 2093, in a botched attack on the son of the son of the son of the son of Osama bin Laden, or what the heck the Green Berets are up to this week in Niger or Yemen or maybe Saskatchewan, October should have been a big month.
After all, it’s not every day that the commander-in-chief of the most powerful and over-funded military machine that human civilization has ever known takes to the Twitter machine to declare, “The Endless Wars Must End!” Or that the current front-runner (OK, just barely) to challenge President Trump in 2020, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, commits the former heresy of declaring in a debate, “I think we oughta get out of the Middle East!”
Those bold declarations held out the promise of a rare political consensus in an era of extremism — that we can all agree that decades of global militarism at the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy hasn’t worked. Or that what critics call “the forever war” that began 18 years ago this month with an American assault on Afghanistan and has bled into drone strikes and special-forces ops all around the globe can’t really last forever.
The context for Trump’s “endless war” tweet, after all, was the ongoing foreign policy fiasco of his hasty withdrawal of America’s 1,000 or so troops from northern Syria, where they’d fought ISIS forces and now offered a layer of protection to ethnic Kurds who’d been our allies in that effort. The pullout — announced by the president in a tweet with no warning and apparently no real planning — left the playing field wide-open for the ruthless troops of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opened the door for more influence by Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran while even enabling the escape of captured ISIS members.
In the wake of Trump’s rash moves came something Washington never sees anymore: Bipartisanship. On the left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the president’s moves send “a dangerous message to our allies and adversaries alike that our word cannot be trusted ...” On the right, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake.”
The anger was hardly a surprise. Even critics of U.S. militarism like the Democrats’ Warren said, correctly, that it makes no sense just to leave a conflict zone on a day’s notice without a plan. And not telling the Kurds or planning for their protection is clearly a betrayal that sends a terrible message to other American allies.
And — Trumpian tweets to the contrary — the 1,000 troops aren’t even really coming home. Many are currently convoying back into neighboring Iraq, a country where the U.S. has already either invaded or launched a surge of troops three times since 1991. And a few are staying in Syria, apparently, to protect oil fields, which seem to be a much greater priority to the White House than Kurdish human beings.
But if it’s this unpopular to withdraw a relative handful of soldiers from a foreign outpost where many average Americans didn’t even know they were stationed in the first place, when would pulling U.S. troops from Syria be OK? Next month? Next year? 2035? And what about Afghanistan, where American forces have been engaged longer than the Civil War and the U.S. active engagement in Vietnam combined, and where yet we still have 13,000 troops?
It’s all exasperating for an expert like Stephen Wertheim, a Columbia University historian who works with the Quincy Institute on a program called Ending Endless Wars, which apparently won’t be ending anytime soon. Wertheim told me this week that it’s going to be hard for the consensus of foreign policy elites in Washington, as well as the more passive acceptance of militarism by voters, to change until folks somehow abandon the notion of American dominance.
“For the vast majority of Americans, the main issue is giving up what has been an illusion, that the United States has been dominating the world, that we make the world run,” Wertheim said. Others might call it American Exceptionalism — the idea that we’re the world’s policeman, imposing order on a chaotic planet. You’d think our experience in Iraq — where America’s 2003 invasion triggered sectarian warfare and the rise of new terrorist groups like ISIS and where everyday citizens were in the streets protesting just last week because their country is still not rebuilt — would have taught us otherwise.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to allow for a smaller military and a so-called “peace dividend” to invest in the needs of everyday Americans. Instead, the numbers — as laid out by Wertheim in a recent New York Times op-ed — are mind-boggling. Of U.S. military interventions since World War II, 80 percent have come since 1991, the year the Soviet Union fell. He noted that, along the way to spending $6 trillion on these wars, the U.S. has dropped bombs on Iraq every year since 1991, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power. Barack Obama was perceived as the anti-war candidate in 2008 yet in the final year of his presidency (2016), America dropped an estimated 27,162 bombs on seven different countries.
Constant U.S.-involved warfare has become background noise that rarely makes the news. Trump’s occasional tweets or rally whoops against “endless war” have helped muddy the truth that civilian deaths caused by American military actions, including the occasional unfortunate attack on an innocent wedding party, have skyrocketed under the 45th president. Hard to believe an honorable man like Donald Trump would tweet one thing and do something else, but here we are.
That’s why it’s imperative that 2020 candidates like Warren and the seemingly surging mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan and now says it’s time to end ‘the forever war," stick to their message despite what are sure to be relentless attacks from an entrenched and decadent D.C. policy establishment. Ending U.S. reliance on fossil fuels would make us less likely to intervene in the Middle East. It’s time that American voters stop asking how we could ever afford universal health care or forgiving college debt, and start asking, how come we spend more on defense than the next seven biggest militaries combined?
Simply put, shareholders in the American Experience should finally start demanding our peace dividend.
Which is why the optics and the politics of the Syria pull-out have been somewhat disheartening. With Trump on the brink of impeachment and his popularity at an all-time low, I’ve seen a lot of folks on the center-left and even the left more eager to score easy political points slam-dunking a weak president over Syria than to start a serious conversation about when it actually is time for U.S. troops to leave other countries. If having a bunch of troops on every continent and dropping a ton of bombs is what it means to be American in the 21st Century, then maybe it’s time to radically rethink what it means to be American.