A U.S. Army Soldier from the A Company, 1-503rd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, conducts a patrol with a platoon of Afghan national army soldiers to check on conditions in the village of Yawez, Wardak province, Afghanistan, Feb. 17, 2010. Partnership between the U.S. Army and the Afghan national army is proving to be a valuable tool in bringing security to the area. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Russell GilchrestReleased)
What is ‘intellectual laziness’? Insisting 19-year wars are in America’s interest

While Trump’s record is far from a non-interventionist’s dream, Trump helped bring attention to America’s incoherent foreign policy, stating that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” Now that the election results point toward a Biden presidency, the hawks were already gearing up to reassert themselves less than a day after the media announced Joe Biden to be the projected winner of the 2020 presidential race. 

The Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s most well-known conservative and conventional hawkish think tanks, called the phrase “endless wars” a tool of “political sloganeering” rather than a “serious critique of continued U.S. involvement in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.” It attached a piece by Dakota Wood at The National Interest, defending the last 20 years of war abroad.

In his piece, “The Myth of Endless Wars,” Wood, a researcher at Heritage, tells us that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia is not really endless, but rather that the government “has enduring interests that must always be addressed.” Wood argues that the United States must keep troops abroad indefinitely to wield influence and dominate with the use of force to protect American security and economic interests:

Indeed, this is not some “endless war” as some claim, but a shift in U.S. military posture that accounts for changes in the security and diplomatic environments, national policy objectives, and the efforts of enemy elements and their sponsors as they pose threats to the United States and its interests.  

Wood’s contention is that when the United States fails to complete a mission, moving the goalposts is acceptable in order to justify continued foreign intervention and occupation. It’s hard to see how this non-falsifiable argument doesn’t qualify as endless. 

Wood’s argument blatantly disregards blowback from failed American interventions. Nation-building proponents regularly tout post-World War II Germany as an example of America’s ability to export democracy. In reality, democracy building and reconstruction in Germany would have occurred with or without American occupation. In fact, the goal was never to install democracy in Germany, and many foreign aid efforts – such as the Marshall Plan – was not a significant factor in Western Europe’s postwar recovery. Pointing to Germany as a U.S. success ignores the larger context that democracy was a result of political evolution rather than importation. 

Furthermore while he acknowledges that the continued U.S. military presence in Germany required by the postwar NATO mission to meet the threat of the Soviet Union — which is now gone — he maintains “that things change, the force that is there continues to have value but for a different purpose.”

Many of the justifications for remaining in the Middle East today are centered around cleaning up messes the U.S. government created. From arming and training the Mujahideen in Afghanistan that eventually formed the Taliban, to supporting and aiding anti-Assad fighters in Syria that eventually sided with ISIS, or creating the conditions in Somalia that led to the rise of al-Sabaab, these actions led to escalated violence that justifies continued  U.S. intervention to this day. The longer Uncle Sam attempts to dictate outcomes anywhere outside its own borders, the messier the situations will become, and the easier it will be for interventionists to say troops must stay.

Wood’s article accuses those who use the term “endless wars” of “intellectual laziness,” yet he fails to develop or extrapolate on many of his key points. For instance, Wood repeatedly alludes to vague American security and economic interests when he stresses the importance of troops abroad, without defining any of them. Maybe because some of these interests only apply to the corporate or political elite rather than national security – like protecting Syrian oil fields as President Trump claimed in 2019. It’s much easier to defend American intervention by glossing over the reality that vital national security interests are not at risk if U.S. troops acting as security guards aren’t protecting Syrian oil fields.

Interventionists accuse restrainers of simplistically arguing for withdrawal without considering the repercussions. Those of us who want to end endless wars have indeed weighed the costs and benefits of continued occupation. The bottom line: the American people have not benefited from these wars of choice or American military hegemony. 

The post-9/11 wars through fiscal year 2020 have cost the United States $6.4 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. The U.S. military has lost over 7,000 servicemembers and an estimated 8,000 contractors, and has sustained tens of thousands of injuries across Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. According to their numbers, projected healthcare costs for American veterans over the next 40 years could reach $1 trillion.

Meanwhile, the project estimates that more than 801,000 people around the world have died directly from war violence, including more than 335,000 civilians who lost their lives as a result of the fighting. Additionally, the U.S.-led Global War on Terror has created conditions for an estimated 37 million refugees. 

The U.S. has not achieved anything in these endless wars that could possibly outweigh these costs. The Taliban is stronger now than at any other point since 2001. In the Afghanistan Papers published by The Washington Post, military leaders and White House officials confessed that they had no idea what they were trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and that the mission was unsuccessful. The mission is now as murky as ever, after a Post article reported that U.S. Special Operations forces are secretly aiding the Taliban against ISIS. A member of the elite Joint Special Operations Command counterterrorism task force told the Post, “What we’re doing with the strikes against ISIS is helping the Taliban move.” So now the United States has come full circle by helping the enemy they have been fighting for the last 19 years. 

Other measures of success, such as political freedom, women’s rights, and poverty rates have not greatly improved either. The countries Wood specifically mentioned in his article — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia — continue to rank as the least free countries on global freedom indices in terms of political rights and civil liberties.

All this is to say that America’s military hegemony has not brought peace, stability, or freedom to the world, and in most cases has had the opposite effect. Restrainers want to protect American national security and U.S. citizens, but acting as the world’s police and throwing money and lives at failing strategies must end. The burden of proof should fall on those who want America’s military dominance to persist. They must rationalize their reasons for engagement and be transparent and forthright with their intentions. 

The American people no longer believe the lies propagated by the Bush Administration and so many others after 9/11. The United States does not face an existential threat from terrorists, and they don’t hate us because “we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” The sooner people like Wood understand this reality, the sooner we can end the endless wars.