September 11th, 2001, altered the course of foreign policy for good. There is no denying that, but as we look back on eighteen years of war, we must consider the results of our war on terrorism. Has it yielded the returns that we’d hope for?
In the aftermath of the attack, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) casted the single “no” vote in opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan and more specifically the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). She is quoted as saying, “When I voted ‘no’ I said it was a blank check and would set the stage for perpetual war, and that’s what it’s done.”
“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” -Authorization for Use of Military Force, 2001
Rep. Barbara Lee, who still serves in Congress to this day, cautioned restraint and would receive death threats because of it. Democrats cowered in fear at the thought of being labeled weak on terrorism and unpatriotic. Two years later prominent Democrats would join Republicans in voting to go to war again in Iraq.
She was right. Three administrations cited the AUMF as justification for dozens of wars and incursions since its passing. This includes waging war against ISIS, a group that did not exist in 2001 and is openly antagonistic towards al-Qaeda. The original pretext for the AUMF – the war in Afghanistan – is still active eighteen years later. Our presence in the region as only grown.
Foreign Policy – 2016 Edition
Coincidentally, Trump ran against senseless wars. Why he chose to surround himself with retired generals and Bush-era neoconservatives is anyone’s guess. President Trump correctly deemed that they would find a true friend to the military establishment or at least a useful idiot.
Whooping and hollering likely occurred at the Pentagon when Trump and his team took office. Champagne bottles were cracked and the cake was brought in, with higher-ups declaring this an open season. Chief among the ideologues surrounding Trump is John Bolton, current national security advisor to Trump and former U.N. Ambassador under Bush. Bolton’s greatest hits include falsely accusing Cuba of having a secret biological weapons program, naming Cuba, Libya, and Syria as an axis of evil, blocking and sabotaging negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, berating and degrading those working under him, and falsifying intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq war.
It seems Bolton’s recent appointment as a national security advisor hasn’t dulled his intentions. His reputation so far precedes him that even Trump is reported as saying, “If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now.” Additionally, Bolton gave a speech a few weeks ago to a room full of Cuban-American veterans announcing a series of crackdowns on Cuba and others, saying “We see the perils of poisonous ideologies left unchecked and the dangers of domination and suppression…The Troika of Tyranny in this Hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—has finally met its match.” He said this week after the U.S. supported a regime change in Venezuela that attempted to oust disputed Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro.
The Cycle of War Continues
The war drums have begun beating again it seems, and the U.S. is eager to pick a fight. Now the stars have finally aligned for it to do so again. The U.S. foreign policy establishment seems committed to validating the inordinate amount of money thrown at it every year. While the Pentagon asked Congress for a budget of $719 billion, five percent more than what Congress was originally planning to give them, it’s unclear how much the Pentagon has learned from the past several decades of war.
It is indisputable that the United States has a terrible track record meddling in other country’s affairs. U.S. interventions have decimated Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and others, and it remains unclear what’s been gained from it. It never ends up well for the U.S., the country’s government, and most importantly the country’s people. Civilians have died. U.S. soldiers have died. For what?
A Lack of Direction
Foreign policy is known for its contradictions. Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to President Obama, famously referred to it as “The Blob”. Our relationships with other countries become acutely transactional in nature. It’s why we can denounce Saudi Arabia for its killing of Jamal Khashoggi and green-light weapons shipments the next day. It’s why they can make deals with Iran in one presidency and force them to war in the next.
Whether the military might is in our blood as humans or just a feature of the most powerful country in the world is hard to see. Whatever pride may have existed within our military establishment has likely atrophied into denial, a dangerous mindset for the men and women with their hands on the trigger. It’s ironic that the most powerful country is itching to prove its military might and failing at almost every turn.
President Donald Trump once yearned for “just one good story” from his paper, the New York Times. In the same way, the Pentagon longs for just one decisive victory. The catch is that there’s no capacity for what happens after countries are toppled. Until the Pentagon stops playing destroyer and starts embracing its role as a rebuilder, it’s hard to see its luck changing anytime soon. The world’s people will hate them. The U.S. will bomb them, and the cycle continues.