By Michael Shank, Matt Hoh and Danny L. Davis
Editor’s note: Matthew Hoh served with the U.S. Marines in Iraq and on State Department teams in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy. Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Daniel L. Davis is an Army Lieutenant-colonel. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government or military.
Diplomacy appears to be winning out, for now at least, in the debate over how the United States should respond to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack on its own people. The last minute halting of the march toward a military strike will no doubt have been a relief to many members of Congress and their constituents. But is this only a temporary reprieve from action?
Most Americans would surely agree that the United States should only pursue military action where vital U.S. interests are at stake. But even a cursory look at America’s actual use of force over the decade-plus since the September 11, 2001 attacks suggests that these impulses are being ignored.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, ultimately deploying hundreds of thousands of ground troops to fight counterinsurgencies. The U.S. also deployed air and missile power against Libya in 2011, and the government has acknowledged utilizing lethal drone strikes in a number of countries including Yemen, Somalia, and of course Pakistan.
Iraq threatens to explode into all out civil war, with suicide bombings still all too frequent. Earlier this month, for example, 30 worshippers were killed at a mosque near Baquba, while late last month, several dozen people were killed in a string of bombings in and near Baghdad. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is still riven by insurgent attacks as well as tribal, religious and sectarian disputes.
The conflict in Afghanistan has left Pakistan even more volatile and unstable than it was prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and while some drone strikes may indeed have neutralized legitimate threats to the United States, the numerous deaths of innocent civilians is likely to have increased rather than reduced the number of potential enemies of the United States.
With all this in mind, it is little wonder that the U.S. public seems like it has had enough of military adventures. Indeed, they may have come to realize before their own government that lethal military force rarely provides the answer to complex international problems. Even before Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a diplomatic breakthrough over Syria’s chemical weapons, one poll suggested that 62 percent of Americans were opposed to using force against Syria.
More telling than this though was a Military Times poll that showed those who have personally experienced the impact of war are even more opposed to intervention – 75 percent of active-duty personnel opposed intervention in Syria.
Such sobering opinions have not stopped America’s armchair generals from weighing in in support of a military strike.
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, Eliot A. Cohen argued that the United States has not earned the right of war weariness.
“The families of the fallen are entitled to war-weariness. So are those wounded in body or spirit, and their loved ones. The mother who has sent her son to war has a right to war-weariness, as does the father who prepares to send his daughter to battle again and again,” Cohen writes. “But for the great mass of the American public, for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, ‘war-weariness’ is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world.”
Richard Cohen echoes these views.
“The inescapable truth is that the world needs a policeman. The inescapable truth is that only the United States can play cop,” he wrote this month. “A further inescapable truth is that evil exists and needs to be fought.”
The danger of such thinking – that the United States can decide alone and for itself who will be subject to military strikes – cannot be overstated. And it is a view that seems inconsistent with the words of one of America’s great military leaders, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Speaking as president in 1953, Eisenhower said the best that could be hoped for in a world riven by the constant threat of war was:
“[A] life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
Over the past dozen years the United States has devoted more than a trillion dollars to the conduct of one war after another – the national Priorities Project estimates that American taxpayers have been paying some $11 million per hour on total war costs since 2001. We have gone into unimaginable levels of debt. Our economy remains anemic. With every act of war we arguably become less secure, while the “need” for more violence seems only to rise – costing more money and requiring the application of yet more violence.
The evidence, then, should be seen as overwhelming: the focus on war as a preferred instrument of policy has made our nation less secure and cost us more than we can afford to pay. We therefore appeal to reason and an examination of what has made our country great and powerful in the past, and return to the values and principles of global engagement.
The American people are already coming to this conclusion. It’s time for our political leaders to recognize that their approach to tackling the world’s problems has failed our country.