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Yes, There Are Endless Wars, and They Need to End

Hawks are trying to change the meaning of the word war so that it can't apply to any of the ongoing wars that the U.S. is fighting and supporting.
Bernie Sanders

James Carafano is here to tell you that there are no endless wars, so stop worrying:

That’s not to say we don’t have troops in combat zones around the world. But, by any reasonable definition, America just isn’t at war.

Carafano makes a lot of unfounded and bizarre claims in his article, but this is the most pernicious. He is trying to change the meaning of the word war so that it can’t apply to any of the ongoing wars that the U.S. is fighting and supporting. We saw something similar in Jim Jeffrey’s remarks a few days ago, and we have seen the same disingenuous arguments from the Pentagon about our involvement in Yemen. The Obama administration did much the same in pretending that the Libyan war did not constitute involvement in hostilities because the other side could not shoot back. Sometimes the reason for denying the obvious is legal, so that a president has a cover story for waging illegal war without Congressional authorization, and other times it is to promote a political narrative. That’s what Carafano is doing. Trump has said that a “great nation doesn’t fight endless wars,” so it would be pretty embarrassing to have Trump presiding over those same wars, wouldn’t it? So we get this ridiculous denial of what everyone can see.

The U.S. is daily engaged in hostilities in at least half a dozen countries, and just a couple weeks ago we were on the cusp of starting a new war with Iran. None of these is on the scale of the Iraq war, but the U.S. is waging war and our government is at war all the same, but we’re supposed to pretend that the U.S. isn’t at war anywhere. That is certainly a useful fiction for the Trump administration, but it isn’t true. Hawks used to be willing to argue that U.S. involvement in these wars was necessary, but it seems that some of them have concluded that it is easier to pretend that the U.S. isn’t at war in order to keep the endless wars going with less scrutiny.

It is true that critics of the endless wars usually prefer a less activist and meddlesome foreign policy than the one we have. They certainly want a less militarized foreign policy. In general, Americans that don’t think the U.S. should be waging open-ended and unnecessary wars for decades are in favor of “doing less,” but it is absurd to say that these critics want the U.S. to “do nothing” abroad. Carafano never quotes anyone directly and he never cites any argument from the people he is criticizing, so his readers won’t know how badly and unfairly he has caricatured their views. He never even mentions anyone by name, so we are left to guess.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have used the phrase in their remarks on foreign policy, and I assume they are Carafano’s main targets. Sen. Sanders wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that was published last week, and the title is “Ending America’s Endless War.” Let’s compare what the senator says to the caricature that Carafano presents. Sanders writes:

The war on terror has turned into an endless war. We will soon have troops fighting in Afghanistan who were not even born on September 11, 2001. We have fathers who completed tours of duty there, only to be followed by their sons and daughters. Withdrawing from Afghanistan is something we must do. My administration will not make critical foreign-policy decisions like this one via tweet, as our current president does. We will work closely with our partners and allies to design a serious diplomatic and political strategy to stabilize the region, promote more effective and accountable governance, and ensure that threats do not re-emerge after we leave.

But just to end our military interventions in these places is not enough. We need to rethink the militaristic approach that has undermined the United States’ moral authority, caused allies to question our ability to lead, drained our tax coffers, and corroded our own democracy. We must never again engage in torture or indefinite detention, and we must limit the use of drone strikes that too often result in high numbers of civilian casualties, boosting the very terrorist organizations that we aim to defeat. And we must seriously reinvest in diplomacy and development aid, both of which have been allowed to atrophy under the current administration. Addressing issues like civil and religious tension, corruption, and lack of opportunity before these conditions give rise to conflict can eliminate the need to address them militarily in the future.

No doubt Carafano would disagree with most or all of this, but does Sanders’ proposal sound like he thinks the U.S. should do “nothing” and “withdraw further from the world stage”? If we’re being honest, of course it doesn’t. He is explicitly calling for a less militarized foreign policy, but that is one that will be replaced instead by increased efforts in diplomacy and development. Sanders is proposing a different, less destructive kind of engagement with the world, but that cannot be fairly described as disengagement or withdrawal. When he talks about ending endless war, he is calling for the U.S. to do less of our government’s most destructive and reckless behavior, but he is also calling for the U.S. to do more constructive engagement aimed at conflict prevention. The results of 18 years of endless war prove that our overly militarized foreign policy is a failure and a menace to other countries and to our own. It is refreshing to hear from presidential candidates that understand that and want to end those failed policies.