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Bait-and-Switch: How Officials Perpetuate Bad Foreign Policy

After NATO, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Americans ought to be skeptical of a new "temporary" mission.

Unscrupulous used car dealers could learn a trick or two from America’s foreign policy mandarins when it comes to bait-and-switch tactics. Repeatedly, U.S. officials have invoked a specific justification—frequently an emotionally charged one with wide appeal—to obtain congressional and public support for a military intervention or other questionable policy initiative. When the original justification subsequently proves to be bogus, exaggerated, or no longer applicable, they simply create a new rationale to justify continuing the mission.

That tactic is especially evident with respect to the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. U.S. leaders justified the initial invasion of the country as a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Foreign fighters belonging to Al Qaeda had used the country as their primary safe haven, and the Taliban government had allowed Osama bin Laden and his organization to plan and execute the attacks from that sanctuary. Given the public’s emotional trauma from the 9/11 episode, the nearly total lack of opposition to launching the Afghanistan invasion was unsurprising. In statement after statement during the initial months and years that followed, American officials reiterated that defeating Al Qaeda—and, if possible, killing or capturing bin Laden—was the primary objective. Ousting the Taliban regime was a corollary to that goal, but no one advocated a long-term war against that indigenous Afghan faction, however odious its social policies might be.

Within a few years, though, the official justifications were quite different. Washington had moved from supposedly waging war against a foreign terrorist organization to explicitly taking sides in an Afghan civil war. U.S. political and military leaders routinely described the Taliban as the principal enemy as though that were always the case. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were scarcely mentioned at all. Indeed, by 2010, U.S. military commanders conceded that there were probably no more than a few dozen Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

Along with that shift, there was a steadily increasing focus on nation-building objectives.  Bringing allegedly democratic governance, improved infrastructure, and social change to Afghanistan now became the primary rationale for perpetuating the U.S./NATO military occupation, rather than defeating terrorism. Today, even the military mission against the Taliban takes a distant second place in efforts to justify a mission that is about to enter its third decade.  A February 2021 Brookings Institution report is typical of the establishment’s current conventional wisdom. “A false step at this stage could essentially hand Afghanistan to the Taliban, which would risk massive repercussions,” including “a major setback for Afghan women’s rights and democracy. That would in turn reverse hard-won gains for a new generation of Afghans and at the same time seriously damage the credibility of a U.S. administration that champions these values.”  

The Afghanistan mission is hardly the first, much less the only, case in which U.S. officials and their media allies sold a military mission to Congress and the American people based on one justification only to discard it when events required a new excuse. A similar process occurred with the war in Iraq. Leading up to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the overwhelming focus was on the supposedly dire menace that Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” posed to U.S. security as well as regional and global peace. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice epitomized such panic-mongering when she warned that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” A close second to that justification was the allegation that Saddam’s regime was in close cooperation with Al Qaeda.  

Both contentions proved to be false. The weapons of mass destruction rationale became an embarrassment when U.S. occupation forces failed to find such weapons, despite an exhaustive search. But ever-agile U.S. policymakers did not let such problems derail the Iraq mission. Instead, the emphasis shifted to the “need” to promote democracy in Iraq and establish that country as a model for liberal governance throughout the Middle East.  

An incident in early 2020 illustrated how insincere U.S. leaders were about respecting post-Saddam Iraq’s sovereignty and political system. Following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani during his visit to Baghdad, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling on the prime minister to expel U.S. forces stationed in the country. President Donald Trump’s reaction was akin to a foreign policy temper tantrum.  He threatened Iraq with harsh economic sanctions if it dared take that step, warning that Washington would impose sanctions “like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It quickly became apparent that the sanctions threat was not just a spontaneous, intemperate outburst. Senior officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies began drafting specific sanctions that could be imposed. Washington explicitly warned the Iraqi government that it could lose access to its account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Such a freeze would have amounted to financial strangulation of the country’s already fragile economy.  

So much for respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and democracy. That rationale for the continuing U.S. military presence proved to be as phony as the original justifications regarding weapons of mass destruction and countering terrorism. It was bait-and-switch with an additional dollop of hypocrisy.

Foreign policy bait-and-switch has had a long, dishonorable history. It even tainted Washington’s original commitment to NATO. When the United States dispatched air and ground forces to Europe in 1951 to bolster the Alliance’s defenses, it was supposed to be a temporary measure until Europe’s democratic powers could recover fully from World War II and deploy adequate numbers of their own troops. When he took command of NATO’s forces, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project [NATO] will have failed.”  

When he became president, Eisenhower promptly forgot that promise, as did all subsequent presidents. Indeed, even the demise of the Soviet Union itself has not dislodged the U.S. military presence in Europe. The trend is now in the opposite direction, with a new troop deployment to Poland, the dispatch of B-1 bombers to Norway, and other measures to “contain” a noncommunist Russia that seems more alarmed by Washington’s hostile moves than it appears intent on aggression and territorial expansion. The justifications for the perpetuation of the U.S. military presence in Europe also have become broader and more amorphous, with invocations of the alleged need to promote democracy and preserve U.S. “leadership.”

Bait-and-switch is a venerable tool in Washington’s foreign policy toolbox, and it is blatant fraud perpetrated on the American people. That track record should cause Americans to be triply skeptical the next time an administration cites an allegedly imperative reason for undertaking a new, “temporary” military mission. The odds are that the mission will prove to be neither imperative nor temporary.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.

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