Tossing Good Lives After Bad Interventions
The war party has fallen into the “credibility” trap.
Washington’s War Party, a vociferous amalgam of foreign policy elites ranging left to right, continues to press for military intervention around the world. Scarcely a week passes without the U.S. threatening war, with Iran and North Korea as the most recent targets.
This militaristic policy is bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and what remains of America’s political center targeting supposed adversaries the world over. Although claiming to deter conflict, Washington actually threatens military action should other states reject the U.S.-constructed—and oft U.S.-violated—“rules-based order.”
Some War Party members at least appear reluctant to set the world aflame. Others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an heir to the “fire-eater” secessionists of his state who lit the fuse of America’s Civil War, avidly campaign for war: the bigger, the better. Graham would unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse worldwide, even dismissing the consequences of a nuclear war involving North Korea. Mississippi’s Sen. Roger Wicker proposed that the U.S. consider confronting Russia with nuclear weapons before Moscow had attacked Ukraine, a suggestion more properly emanating from Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter than a leading policymaker. The sheer inanity of such proposals has fueled increasing if sometimes inconsistent grassroots opposition to war among progressives, libertarians, and national conservatives.
There is no intelligible argument for taking America and the rest of the planet to the nuclear brink in most conflicts. North Korea’s rule and Russia’s aggression obviously violate humanitarian norms, but most members of the Washington War Party, irrespective of their public protestations, care little about the lives of others, at least if they are Africans, Arabs, and Asians. Consider the War Party’s legacy. The Bush administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq triggered sectarian carnage that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations aided Saudi Arabia’s brutal aggression in Yemen, which also caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Hypocrisy and sanctimony aside, tragedies elsewhere, though heart-rending, do not warrant thrusting America and Americans into other people’s wars.
The more hard-headed analysts professing at least a few “realist” tendencies claim almost every fight to be in the country’s interest. (And not just any interest, but a “vital” or “existential” interest.) Most of the cases are anything but. Ukraine’s collapse, though a humanitarian debacle, would have minimal impact on American security. Moscow has no reason for war with the U.S.: there are no territorial disputes, most international squabbles, such as that over Syria, are of only peripheral importance, while Russia’s shift toward China, North Korea, and Iran reflects Washington’s contentious relationship with Moscow. Given Russia’s evident military weakness, even European states could defend themselves against the Putin regime if they put in a bit more effort.
If Washington has no reason to fight over such stakes for humanitarian or security reasons, then what? Surely economics is no justification, other than to avoid total social collapse. Better higher energy prices than endless war, given the casualties and costs so horrendous in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s apparent proposal to turn American military personnel into bodyguards for the Saudi royal family is grotesque in every way. Even if intended to moderate energy costs—in fact, the international energy market has diversified, while Riyadh has been reducing supply to hike oil prices—this would be a terrible bargain.
Finally, there is the “credibility” issue. It has become the kitchen-sink argument for endless war. Yes, the conflict might not be in America’s interest. It might be consuming good lives after bad interventions. It might be wasting vast amounts of cash. It might have no apparent end point after months, years, or even decades of fighting. Yet the U.S. must battle on because something worse might happen.
Even some otherwise sensible skeptics of the War Party’s perpetual militaristic adventurism are sometimes lured upon these policy rocks by the modern Sirens of credibility mythology. For instance, J.D. Foster, a long-time policy denizen of Washington now escaped to Idaho, recently rebutted presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s proposal to shift attention from Ukraine to elsewhere. Foster rightly dismissed those who paint Vladimir Putin as the new Hitler: “Russia’s economy is spent. Russia is spent. Win, lose, or draw, Russia’s adventurism against European targets is over even if Putin avoids the Mussolini treatment.” However, America still must stay, said Foster. The reason “is China and American credibility.”
He listed past offenses by the “cut-and-run crowd”: Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam. (Surely Korea also should be on the list. As well as the War of 1812, when Americans accepted a draw with Great Britain, rewarding aggression for centuries to come!) If we now leave Ukraine, Foster believes, Beijing is likely to run amok in East Asia, with Xi Jinping the new (though largely naval-driven) Hitler. Thus, we must stay in Ukraine until something—as Foster admits, “victory” has not been defined—good happens. If not, the war presumably must be passed on to future generations.
Both Afghanistan and Vietnam were generational conflicts. The first ran 40-plus years, with the U.S. directly involved for 20. Notably, Russia stuck around for only 10. Alas, staying for more—perhaps a half or even full century—would not have brought victory. Members of the Taliban, though understandably abhorrent to the liberal West, were fighting for their country. Americans most certainly were not. And Washington’s allies, suffused with corrupt politicians and brutal warlords, drove far too many traditional, and especially rural, Afghans to the Taliban.
As for Vietnam, would Foster have had Washington remain there forever as well? Of course, members of the War Party insist that if only Americans remain steadfast, they can outlast the barbarian hordes. Those doing the dying—rarely the Vietnam refuseniks turned post-conscription hawks, such as Richard Cheney and other ivory-tower warriors bent on war here, there, and everywhere—understandably are less enthusiastic about endless conflict for purposes neither serious nor, often, even discernible.
Remaining in Iraq would have left American forces legally naked, with neither parliamentary approval nor a status of forces agreement. Rather than enjoy Ken Adelman’s long delayed cakewalk, American personnel would have been targeted by Sunni terrorists, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was transmuted into the Islamic State; Shia nationalists, most notably the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr; and Iranian-backed militias, which in recent years targeted U.S. military facilities and embassy. How long would the American public have supported that deployment?
The credibility argument fails more broadly. First, it requires supporting a lost cause potentially forever, with American military personnel fighting and dying to prove that Americans will fight and die for no good reason, with no end in sight, or perhaps even possible.
Second, fighting endless wars drains resources away from other, more important interests. Indeed, engaging in conflicts of minimal significance to America’s security demonstrates an instinct for the capillary rather than the jugular. Washington’s adversaries most likely celebrate a decision-making process so contorted as to squander so many lives and so much wealth in secondary and tertiary theaters.
Third, other countries, certainly China and Russia, probably nuclear-armed North Korea, and perhaps Iran with its complex collection of proxy forces, view themselves as in a different category from most countries. Sure, the U.S. might fight endlessly in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that doesn’t mean most members of the War Party are prepared for a nuclear confrontation with Russia. And projecting military force thousands of miles from home to protect Taiwan would be highly uncertain, risky, and expensive, with likely consequences much worse than any of Washington’s military undertakings over the last two decades. At a minimum, wargamers expect the U.S. would lose a couple of aircraft carriers and hundreds of planes in a Sino–American conflict. Are Americans ready for that?
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Indeed, today’s credibility search is largely a political mind game more likely to distort than enhance Washington policymaking. Officials determined to rule the world irrespective of cost—believing the U.S. to be the indispensable power that stands taller and sees further, etc., etc.—constantly concoct convenient rationalizations. The War Party imagines that every American action is intensely scrutinized and no foreign power acts on its own initiative for its own reasons. Uncle Sam is so respected and feared that the mere wave of his pinky finger, so long as done vigorously and constantly, will cause foreign leaders to instantly take the fetal position, forgoing any action that might incur Washington’s displeasure. However, when the U.S. fails to intervene, intervene decisively, intervene constantly, and intervene everywhere, no matter how distant and unimportant the conflict, it communicates weakness and invites foreign challenge. The result is likely to be the onset of a new Dark Age, in which liberty is forever swept from the earth, never to reappear.
Hence, Americans must fund an endless proxy war against Russia. Never mind the cost when the U.S. is essentially bankrupt. Or the escalatory risk since Ukraine’s status matters far more to Moscow than America. Or the geopolitical blowback from cementing Russia’s alignment with China, North Korea, and Iran, which could turn conventional conflicts nuclear. Washington’s credibility is at stake!
Credibility does matter—which is an important reason to avoid making stupid and unsustainable commitments, in place, degree, time, and length. In any case, as a superpower, the U.S. can and, to serve its own people, must break commitments that no longer serve its interests. Young Americans’ lives should not be sacrificed to pay for the War Party’s misdeeds. The best way to honor the nation’s war dead would be to stop sacrificing so many Americans’ lives for so little purpose.