In the spring of 2014, we realized we at Win Without War had a problem. On one hand, we knew that the American public was sick and tired of a series of seemingly endless military conflicts in the Middle East. On the other, Washington’s foreign policy consensus was as committed as ever to continuing those wars, fuming that they had so far been unable to expand them onto a new battlefield in Syria. Something would have to change.
You didn’t have to look hard to find public frustration with what was then over 13 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more than a dozen other countries around the world, all part of the so-called “War on Terror. ”In 2008, voters elected Barack Obama because he pledged to end the war in Iraq and engage in diplomacy with Iran, handily beating an opponent who championed the “surge” in Iraq and joked about bombing Iran. In 2012, he won again, pledging to repeat in Afghanistan his recently completed drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq. A year later, when the Washington foreign policy establishment demanded military action in Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack, Congress was forced to pull the vote on a war authorization which was destined to be defeated after overwhelming public opposition.
Yet there we were in the Spring of 2014, staring down the annual rite of legislative passage known as the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA for short. Troops were coming home, new missions were being blocked, and the public was rewarding politicians calling for diplomacy and ending wars. But as the machinery of Congress geared up to tackle the massive NDAA, those of us working for peace knew we had our work cut out for us.
While the Obama administration had formally dropped the “War on Terror” label and, to its credit, dramatically reduced our troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the truth was the global counterterrorism war which began in 2001 showed no signs of slowing down. There was, to be fair, growing calls for change. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) had gone from being the sole voice of dissent in 2001 to the leader of a growing transpartisan movement of progressive and libertarian members of Congress demanding change. And with the NDAA on the horizon, she was once again planning to introduce legislation to finally repeal what she had presciently warned would become a blank check for war, the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). Working with her, we were determined that this year would be different.
One of the ways Washington’s foreign policy establishment protects itself is by strictly regulating the rhetorical battlefields where policy is debated. The public was making its voice clear. They were sick and tired of war. So Washington simply stopped talking about “war.” In the previous year’s NDAA, coming in at 494 pages, the word “war” appears 39 times. But it was not used once to describe any of the multiple theaters of operation that the U.S. found itself at war in that year. The word “war” had been replaced with “counterterrorism,” “sensitive military operations,” and “enduring security threat.” As far as official DC was concerned, there was simply no “war.”
Of course for those doing the fighting and dying, for the people living in the warzones, and for the public footing the ever-expanding bill, the war was very much real. And despite President Obama’s drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war showed no signs of ending. The tactics had changed from large U.S. footprint occupations to arming and training proxy forces supported with aerial bombardment (often via drones) and special forces, but the strategy remained the same. Through two presidents, 13 years, and numerous countries, our nation remained at “war” with terrorism. The bipartisan consensus of the Washington establishment differed only in how best to prosecute that war.
So as we strategized that spring, this was our dilemma. The public was on our side in wanting to end the post 9/11 wars, but Washington refused to debate anything but how best to fight terrorism. If we were going to change that, we would need to change the terms of the debate. So that’s what we did.
The legislative strategy was familiar enough. Rep. Lee would once again introduce legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF, the very legislation that declared our nation’s response to the horrific attacks of September 11th would be to go to war. Lee’s bill would in turn be adapted into an amendment offered to the NDAA, with Rep. Lee and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) offering 90-day and one-year repeals respectively. We suspected we lacked the votes to turn this into law, but in a Congress that hadn’t even debated these issues in over a decade, just forcing the vote was progress.
In order to rally support for Rep. Lee’s legislation, we launched a grassroots advocacy campaign, driving constituents to contact the House and remind them where the public stood. We needed a rallying call and something that made this insidery legislative issue real to the everyday Americans we were asking to take action. Earlier that year, our partners at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, who were helping lead the charge to repeal the 2001 AUMF, began using the phrase “end endless war.” We decided to join them, and on May 9th, we hit send on our alert calling on Congress to “end endless war” and asking Rep. Lee’s colleagues to join her legislation. Within hours thousands of people had taken action and Twitter was lighting up with #EndEndlessWar. Within days, members of Congress were tweeting the hashtag, and the debate about our nation’s post-9/11 wars has never been the same.
Today, most of the leading Democratic candidates running for president have pledged to end our nation’s endless wars, while Donald Trump claims (despite actually having done the opposite) to be ending the same wars already. In perhaps the greatest sign of how far we’ve come, some of Washington’s most “serious” people are venting their frustration with all this talk of ending endless war.
Of course, rhetoric alone does not change policy, and sadly the United States remains deeply mired in numerous wars throughout the Middle East. But understanding how our political leaders came to try to out-compete one another on ending endless wars is an important one.
Left to its own devices, Washington would still be solely debating its enduring missions and how much war was just the right amount of war. DC’s foreign policy elite have countless reasons to prefer more of the same, regardless of how often it results in failure. Far more careers have been ended by questioning conventional wisdom than by going along with it. Meanwhile, careers spent far away from the trenches of electoral campaigns means few of the Beltway’s foreign policy power-brokers have any true sense of just how little public support there is for our nation’s military misadventures. And finally, the corruption at the heart of our foreign policy and national security means there is far more money to be made protecting the profits of Pentagon contractors and doing the bidding of powerful special interests and foreign governments than in fixing what’s broken and building peace.
The only way any of that changes is with grassroots pressure. The shifting debate from how best to fight our nation’s endless wars to how to end them shows just that. Grassroots activists stopped having the debate on Washington’s terms and refused to accept that the failed status quo must be maintained. As is often the case, it has taken Washington far too long to get the message, but no one doubts today that change is coming.
And when it does, it will be because the American public found its voice and started telling Washington exactly what it wanted: to end endless war.