I recently received a query from several mid-career national security professionals—a mix of military and civilians—currently enrolled in a graduate level program at a prominent American university. As part of their course of study, they are engaged in a collaborative research project that aims to answer this question: “Is America capable of constructing and executing a national security strategy for the Long War that is durable, coherent, affordable, multi-generational and achievable?”  

In national security circles, as I understand it, the phrase “Long War” has supplanted “Global War on Terrorism” as the umbrella term encompassing U.S. military activities everywhere from West Africa to the Southern Philippines. It is shorthand for “war against violent Islamists wherever they happen to be.”

The students define their research problem this way: “American democracy [emphasis added] is not suited to support the current Long War strategy that demands consistent goals, ways, and means to achieve success.”

I was taken aback by their formulation. Is that how it looks to those on the inside? The chief obstacle to formulating an effective strategy is American democracy?

Here is how I responded:

I’ve read your paper. My sense is that you are proposing to solve a problem that does not exist. The national security apparatus has already devised a way of waging an open-ended “Long War.” Note the absence of any antiwar party and the lack of any large-scale public protest to the war’s perpetuation. The war has continued for more than 16 years (longer if you include Clinton’s anti-terrorism efforts) and there is nothing to prevent it from continuing for years to come. The American public is almost entirely compliant.  

What accounts for this compliance?

Policymakers have learned to keep U.S. casualties low and avoid substantive discussions of the war’s fiscal implications. Every once in a while, the president appoints a new field commander in Afghanistan or elsewhere who claims to have a new idea—with the military clock thereby starting over. Similarly, every four or eight years, we elect a new commander-in-chief who claims to have a new idea—Trump’s was to “win or get out”—so the political clock also starts over.  

You write that “American democracy is not suited to support the current Long War.” The facts say otherwise.

From my perspective the actual problem is this: the national security apparatus is incapable of devising a way to conclude the Long War successfully. “American democracy” has not failed. The people charged with formulating and implementing policy have.

We live in strange times. Not least among the factors contributing to that strangeness is that the Long War gets longer by the day, even as both policy elites and the general public take its continuation for granted. Perhaps it’s time to rechristen it as the Everlasting War.

There is a profound need to inquire how we got into this mess. Blaming American democracy does not offer a promising place to start.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.