Honor veterans by considering alternatives to the foreign policy status quo

Honor veterans by considering alternatives to the foreign policy status quo
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Washington has a bias for war. Since 2001, the United States has occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, and is currently conducting anti-ISIS and anti-Iranian operations in Syria as part of their ongoing civil war. Seven countries are experiencing American-led bombing campaigns, and U.S. forces are involved in some form of combat in 14 different counties. If you include training exercises and the presence of U.S. bases as part of the war on terror, 40 percent of the entire world bears the imprint of the U.S. military.

On Memorial Day, we honor those who have died as a result of these efforts, as well as those in previous conflicts. This particular Memorial Day, after 18 years of continuous war, lawmakers and citizens alike should reflect not just on who died, and where and how, but also on the question of why.

Too many of our recent conflicts — and the one the Trump administration seems fine risking with Iran—are driven by a vision of a wildly inflated threat and an overly expansive definition of the national interest that gives the government too much latitude in the realm of foreign policy. The best way to honor veterans of foreign wars is ensure that fewer service members find themselves fighting in one.


Consider the issue of Syria. Despite announcing last December that all U.S. forces would leave the war-torn nation, the Trump administration has backtracked and given its blessing to an indefinite presence of several hundred to upwards of 1,000 troops in order to combat what is left of ISIS, referee fighting between the Kurds and Turks, but mainly to attempt to roll back Iranian influence. In The Wall Street Journal in February, congressmen and war veterans Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawWhat to us is the Fourth of July? Ocasio-Cortez builds political army, and a fundraising machine to match GOP lawmakers call for new sanctions on senior Chinese officials MORE and Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherHillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down Lawmakers introduce legislation to establish national cybersecurity director House Republican accuses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube of not doing enough to combat Chinese propaganda MORE penned an op-ed imploring the president to maintain an “appropriate military presence” in Syria, as well as Afghanistan. Success in “the Middle East means preventing another 9/11.”

Neither of these rationales — containing Iran and preventing another large-scale terrorist attack—are served by waging endless war in the Middle East or Central Asia. Despite what the Washington establishment would have you believe, Iran is not a direct threat to the U.S. They aren’t even a uniquely bad actor in the region, especially compared to Saudi Arabia. Iran is a middling power that doesn’t have the ability to dominate the Middle East as a regional hegemon. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t wreak havoc in the event of an actual conflict, but as things currently stand, the Trump administration’s antagonism of Iran is redundant.

Similarly, indefinite military operations drain the U.S. of power and have failed to reduce the threat that terrorism poses. The U.S. can monitor and strike anti-U.S. terror threats without permanent ground troops — and it definitely does not require regime change or nation-building. Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, Syria to the Syrians, and only strike in a limited fashion as a last resort to neutralize actual threats.

Interventionists cite the refuge that al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan as the crucial element of the plot’s success, and as such, the U.S. needs to maintain a presence in the Arab and Persian world to prevent this from happening again.

On its face, it’s a compelling story. But it’s a simplistic one and ignores a lot of other causal factors. 9/11 was planned from multiple points around the globe, including here in the U.S. There were almost two dozen intelligence failures that could have prevented it, and the Clinton and early Bush administrations were largely ignorant of this kind of threat.


Now, the U.S. has the ability and the political will to disrupt terrorist operators globally without an indefinite troop presence. Whether it’s in Syria or Afghanistan, safe havens are not really that safe, and it doesn’t require thousands of U.S. forces to make it that way.

Thousands of soldiers have died as part of our post-9/11 conflicts — many deaths that could have been avoided if we had a more level-headed assessment of the threat environment, more humility about the limits of U.S. power, and more focus on what actually constitutes the U.S. national interest.

These brave service members who gave their lives are not just names on a plaque in a public park somewhere, and they represent more than simply their own life lost. They represent relationships that ended prematurely or never occurred—mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and confidants.

It’s clear that whether we are talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or the prospect of a future conflict with Iran, there are available alternate courses of action that come with a much lower cost, particularly in terms of lives. Washington can honor veterans this Memorial Day — past, present and future — by considering them and reconsidering its bias for war. 

Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.