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Our Perpetual War Political Culture

Andrew Bacevich observes that Washington mostly ignores the war in Afghanistan, and finds that our political leaders appear uninterested in bringing it to an end. He concludes:

That our impulsive commander in chief may one day initiate some new war in a fit of pique is a worrisome prospect. That neither President Trump nor anyone else in Washington seems troubled that wars once begun drag on in perpetuity is beyond worrisome.

One of the more striking things about the paltry foreign policy debate in the 2016 campaign is that the war in Afghanistan was never mentioned in any of the presidential debates, and scarcely came up at any other time. As I recall, neither candidate said anything substantive about the longest foreign war in our history, and neither of them was ever asked to say anything. That was consistent with the overall neglect of our ongoing involvement in multiple foreign wars. The problem here isn’t just that both major party candidates would have taken conventionally hawkish positions in favor of continuing the war indefinitely, but that they didn’t think they had to take a public position because unending war is now simply our default mode of operation. Our political leaders and our media don’t just consider perpetual war to be tolerable, but for the most part seem to find it so unimportant as to not be worth their time. This is irresponsible neglect on their part, but almost no one notices their negligence because the immediate costs of the war are borne by a small number of Americans. The rest of the country can go about its business without having to pay any attention to a war that is now over fifteen years old, and that suits the people running the war just fine.

Political leaders in Washington know now that the public will accept open-ended, desultory wars for a very long time as long as there are relatively few American casualties. Most of our politicians think that our government must exercise “leadership” in the world in the form of military action, so they can’t imagine bringing foreign wars to an end and make no effort to do so. Ending a foreign war, no matter how unsuccessful it has been, would represent an “abandonment” of that unquestionable “leadership” role. Most of our politicians will never fault a president for initiating, escalating, or continuing an unnecessary war, but they will denounce him if he decides not to start or join one. Under those circumstances, a president usually isn’t going to risk being blamed for the aftermath of a withdrawal when he can avoid scrutiny and criticism by keeping a war going, and the longer the war goes on the harder it becomes for a later president to be the one to pull the plug.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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