A new survey shows that Americans are somewhat desensitized to U.S. military action abroad — unless that action includes having U.S. boots on the ground. This means that there is very little popular pressure for the American military to curtail violent campaigns in countries across the globe in the name of counterterrorism.
According to the 2021 Chicago Council Survey, U.S. troops engaged in combat abroad is the only action which a majority of Americans identify as an act of war (71 percent). Only minorities of Americans, though they are substantial, say that drone strikes or assassinations against other countries’ government officials (44 percent), airstrikes against anti-government insurgents in other countries (41 percent) and drone strikes against suspected terrorists in other countries (39 percent) count as acts of war. Just a third believe deploying U.S. special operations is an example of war (34 percent). There are few differences across political affiliation.
But the United States has been engaging in conflict in these more remote or limited-footprint ways extensively. Today, we are active participants in conflicts without large-scale troop deployments in dozens of countries across the globe.
In 20 years of the war on terror, the United States has conducted 91,000 strikes in seven countries. This year alone, we’ve conducted strikes in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia. Since 2018, U.S. forces have engaged in some type of combat or potential combat in 12 countries and conducted counterterrorism training and assistance in nearly 80. Despite this expansive use of military engagement, according to Americans’ definition of war, only two of these countries count as places where we were at war.
Some analysts disagree and think all of these actions can constitute war, and this is why they have described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as having shrunk the war, rather than really ending it.
How did we end up with such wide-ranging counterterrorism activities across the globe? It was easy to do. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed just days after the 9/11 attacks, has provided legal cover for lethal military action across many countries and against numerous terrorist groups, some of which didn’t even exist when the authorization was passed two decades ago. By relying on this overly broad congressional authorization, successive administrations have avoided having to make a public case for entering new and changing battlefields, and Congress has astutely avoided its oversight role.
Bypassing specific authorization for new conflicts means we’ve entered most of these new battlefields casually, with little or no public debate, scrutiny or awareness.
Our government’s casual relationship with military conflict has helped shape a similar public opinion. It is little wonder that Americans don’t think of these engagements as acts of war when they occur so routinely, out of sight, at a distance and outside of debate.
But the ease with which we have entered these conflicts belies the serious repercussions of doing so. They are costly and rife with unintended consequences, such as unaccountable civilian casualties that fuel further conflict, making us less safe, not more. Because these individual conflicts need no specific authorization, they fly under the radar, and their costs go unaccounted, too. With so little scrutiny, Americans can’t be certain that these military actions are supporting our interests abroad at all.
There is growing attention in Congress to raising the bar for our military interventions abroad to ensure greater scrutiny. In July, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the National Security Powers Act, which would ensure that hostile military action, such as lethal drone strikes and assisting foreign militaries as they counter insurgencies, always trigger congressional oversight, regardless of whether we call it war or not.
With these requirements, entering into conflicts abroad would be more circumscribed, and in the process of seeking congressional authorization, the costs, risks and uncertain consequences would be explored and debated. Doing so would increase the public visibility of these military actions. Everyday Americans might still not call it war, but they would be better equipped to calculate the risks and rewards of involvement in future conflicts.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy.