'Forever war' slogans short-circuit the scrutiny required of national security choices

'Forever war' slogans short-circuit the scrutiny required of national security choices
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President Donald Trump and the Democratic Party's contenders vying to run against him in the 2020 election do not share many policy positions. Yet, they appear to agree on one thing — the need to “end the endless wars.” 

President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have echoed some variation of that statement. The phrase seems to refer to the post-9/11 conflicts. The corresponding policy prescription is a withdrawal of most or all American military forces — from some combination of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — as part of an overall reduction of U.S. commitments in the broader Middle East and South Asia regions. The details of a strategy for doing so are sparse, however.

The president and those seeking to be the next commander in chief are not alone in their general desire to terminate the so-called “forever wars.” An increasing number of members of Congress, activist groups and public intellectuals are joining them. Some polls show that a growing number of Americans, including those who have served in uniform, are disillusioned with the course of the war in Afghanistan and would support a U.S. withdrawal.


One of us served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer in the Navy, deploying multiple times to Iraq, and can attest to diminishing support among service members who served in that theater. 

What to make of all this? On the one hand, it is critical in our democracy to have more Americans — private citizens and public officials alike — engaged actively in the conversation about the nation’s role in the world and its military deployments overseas. To the extent that this dynamic is playing out, we should encourage it. 

On the other hand, the “end the endless wars” construct is leading us toward simplicity — just pull back, and all will be well — where there is none. It is short-circuiting the kind of scrutiny any consequential national security choice deserves.

Decisions about what to do in any country where the U.S. has committed forces should develop from a sober accounting of our interests, threat assessments and the risks involved with the status quo, a change in approach or a withdrawal.

Americans must aim for a difficult but necessary debate rather than adopting a strategy-by-slogan that promises an easy way out. How can we begin that dialogue?


Start with a good-faith principle: No American, including the authors, wants to send their brothers and sisters into harm’s way, much less keep them there indefinitely. There is no “pro-endless wars” constituency, and manufacturing a straw man of it is simply a way to end a meaningful debate. Our collective focus is on ending (and deterring) wars in ways that are likely to be effective and that protect our interests.

We must acknowledge that the last time the U.S. made the choice to “end” a war and defend our interests from afar, it proved disastrous. In December 2011, as President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE oversaw the complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, he declared that “this is a historic moment. A war is ending.” Less than three years later he ordered U.S. troops back to Iraq after al Qaeda in Iraq resurged and morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Afghanistan, among the reasons al Qaeda was able to execute the 9/11 attacks is that we left the country to “sort itself out” in the 1990s, save for one-off cruise missile strikes. In Syria, we have largely steered clear of the war raging since 2011 — with the exception of the anti-ISIS campaign. The country now hosts a massive safe haven for al Qaeda, a forward base for the world’s largest state sponsor of terror — Iran — on our ally Israel’s doorstep, and a foothold for Russia to use in challenging the U.S.

Withdrawal and disengagement have costs, and we need to grapple with them openly. There are jihadists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria who intend to attack the U.S. How would a retreat affect their likelihood of success? What other actors driven by anti-American ambition will fill the vacuum? How would abandoning certain communities, ones that have supported the U.S., to face emboldened enemies affect our credibility among partners and allies around the world? What future options would we be foreclosing if we left today?

These are critical questions that bumper-sticker slogans gloss over.

We should demand more of our civilian leaders and elected officials overseeing the wars we are in today. We tend to focus on the military in matters of war — a forgivable instinct. Yet war, as Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, is fundamentally a political act and instrument. American military involvement should derive from political objectives and be supported by the proper approach and necessary resources. In the case of the campaign to defeat ISIS, our military forces undertook a remarkable campaign under difficult circumstances to roll back the group in Iraq and Syria. A complementary vision for a political outcome tied to our interests is either underdeveloped or does not exist; that must change.

Congress must assert itself in this debate and assume a stronger oversight role, on a bipartisan basis when possible. It could examine current strategies and help weigh alternatives, assess resource allocations and legal authorities, monitor and inform policy implementation, encourage a proper civilian-military balance in the prosecution of war and, at the local level, educate constituents about the challenges and tradeoffs of different options.

Wherever we end up on the immediate policy decisions, we should strive to get there with clarity and an airing of risks and consequences — and ditch the false comfort of bumper-sticker slogans. 

Maseh Zarif is director of external relations at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank focused on national security and foreign affairs issues. He previously served as an adviser to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Follow him on Twitter @masehz.

James Zumwalt is a former Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer and served as an adviser to the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.