Rethinking American foreign policy is not solely an exercise of predicting future requirements and planning for what could be. It also requires an honest assessment of current priorities, positioning, and policies. National defense, the primary function of government, is best served by being truthful with ourselves about our goals and limitations and requiring our elected leaders to own their responsibilities.
American troops are in harm’s way under policies that are outdated, misguided, and arguably detrimental to America’s future safety and prosperity. This is especially true in our current military engagements in Syria and Afghanistan. But there is a better way.
An objective assessment of our nearly 18-year-long military engagement in Afghanistan – which Americans, including military veterans, overwhelming support ending – and our increasingly ambiguous mission in Syria – another conflict of which Americans are increasingly skeptical – would show we have lost sight of our objectives in these countries. America would best be served by viewing these situations for what they are, responding accordingly, and not attempting to force an outcome that history shows will never come to bear.
A strong military is central to a strong national defense, but it should be one component of foreign policy, along with a robust employment of diplomacy, and used as a last resort to protect American lives and objectives.
Just as great nations do not fight endless wars, they also do not fight wars in which they have no business fighting.
Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, our country was clearly justified in seeking out and bringing justice to those who perpetrated or aided those heinous acts. Congress took swift action by authorizing the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
Almost two decades later—more years than the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined—troops are still in Afghanistan and elsewhere under the same original authorization. Almost two decades later, they find themselves in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere, fighting against enemies that weren’t foreseen in 2001, and despite having largely eliminated threats and achieved original objectives.
According to the Cost of Wars Project at Brown University, total spending on post-9/11 wars is almost $6 trillion. That’s not to mention the indirect costs placed on the American taxpayers’ shoulders from veterans’ care and interest on the money we borrowed to fund our operations in the two countries.
Our focused objective of preventing another 9/11 from occurring by decimating its perpetrators, however, is now in the rearview mirror:
In December of 2018, the Pentagon published a report on security conditions in Afghanistan which noted “The al-Qa’ida threat to the United States and its allies and partners has decreased, and the few remaining al-Qa’ida core members are focused on their own survival.”
In November of 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed “Yes, we have decimated core Al Qaeda.”
In April of 2016, National Security Advisor Susan Rice remarked, “Over the past 15 years, we have decimated al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
In Afghanistan al Qaeda has been crippled and the Taliban severely punished. Our credibility is not enhanced by devoting more lives and capital toward an end that has already been achieved.
Similarly, keeping ourselves in the middle of a Syrian civil war only serves to exacerbate the internal conflict while also potentially heightening tensions with other actors engaged in the region. And though we have destroyed the physical presence of the Islamic State in the country, little more can be done, if anything, to eliminate every single Islamic radical in the country.
It is important to note, withdrawing military personnel from Afghanistan and Syria does not mean ignoring Afghanistan and Syria—counterterror missions can be effectively prosecuted without a permanent troop presence in these theaters.
There is a better way to achieve our goals on the global stage: one that relies on realism—viewing the world and its constraints objectively as they are, not what we would idealistically like the world to be—and restraint—only using military power abroad when it is absolutely necessary and cost-effective—to advance our vital national interests.
We need not and cannot ignore legitimate threats to our security around the world. Withdrawing from Afghanistan and Syria doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t maintain an ability to counter situations that may arise. Not doing so would be irresponsible and dangerous.
But maintaining our presence in these countries puts American lives at risk, wastes valuable taxpayer dollars, and saps valuable human and material resources from confronting more immediate and persistent threats to American security and prosperity.
American security interests can be protected by strengthening the long-term economic stability of our country, maintaining a strong military able to deter adversaries’ actions before they happen, committing ourselves to the deliberate employment of Americans abroad, and a vigorous defense of our nation if attacked or threatened.
Anything short of a full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Syria is not only irresponsible, it ignores the principles on which we have become the greatest country in the world.
In rethinking American foreign policy we must be honest and real when considering what constitutes a threat to our vital interests. Further, we should also employ restraint when determining how, when, and where a military presence is necessary to protect and secure those vital interests.
As the greatest nation in the world, America shouldn’t fight endless wars.
Let’s rethink American foreign policy.