The Burden of a Militarized US Foreign Policy
By Corri Zoli, associate teaching professor and director of research at the Institute of Counterterrorism and National Security at Syracuse University.
What role should American troops play — some would say, standing in the crossfire — between distant governments and groups engaged in protracted armed conflicts, whose grievances long predate 9/11? What US obligations are owed to parties of these conflicts, even partners, particularly if their issues — which they believe are worth fighting and dying for — have little to do with US national strategic priorities? How many of the long-term conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which the US is often expected to manage, are defined by the same, solvable problems — ethnic strife, capitulation on human rights, bad actors using political violence rather than building pluralistic consensus — which could be solved if local governments would simply govern their own diverse constituencies with care and accountability? In the Mideast in particular, these “conflict drivers” create economic-conflict traps and erode region-wide stability. Should the US then pick up the pieces?
Unfortunately, there are far too many wars to which these questions apply — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen (between Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, and Iran), Pakistan and India, in fractured Syria, lawless Libya, Sudan, and South Sudan, even the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict. If we broaden the lens to include — not just active wars and internal strife — but low-intensity conflicts and hybrid threats, the numbers rise to include post-Arab Spring Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and the Syrian-Civil War spillover into Lebanon. Is it reasonable to expect American servicemembers to protect and police these nations’ in light of their security threats, much of which stems from internal governance deficits? Can the American public feasibly support US intervention — at a cost of trillions, not to mention in lives — in 10 Mideast conflicts out of 16 nations?
What is bizarre about the uproar over the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out the small number of remaining US troops (1,000–1,500) in Northern Syria is that very few of these questions have even been asked, let alone answered. Few analysts mention the dismal empirics of war, the backdrop for weighing the merits of any lasting US presence in Syria, from policy, strategic, democratic, and other perspectives. From a democratic perspective, for instance, American voters have spoken, twice, in the last two elections, supporting both Obama and Trump Administrations’ promise of “no new wars.” From a policy perspective, the picture is even more bizarre: despite Obama’s best intentions, his own political appointees would not let him extricate the US from the Mideast. Hence, Obama called his Libyan intervention the “worst mistake” of his presidency, even as he initiated this and two other new US interventions in Syria and Yemen, adding three more wars to US ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (which Obama tried unsuccessfully to end in 2011). Biden, who presided over Obama’s withdrawal ceremony in Iraq in December 2011, said: “thank you, Obama, for giving me the opportunity to end this goddamn war.” Such a sentiment was short-lived and, as most analysts believe, the prerequisite for the rise of ISIS in the Levant.
These examples illustrate how easy it is for all of us — even Presidents with foreign policy authority — to get lost in the mixed media messages, the twists and turns of self-serving politics, the topsy-turvy world of policy recommendations, and the “fog of war” complexities of conflict, all of which inexorably push for more war. The DC-based foreign policy establishment — what Obama famously called “the blob” — presses for intervention regardless of context, even sucking in traditional doves, despite the US public’s clear message of war exhaustion. Even the slightest scrutiny reveals disingenuous outrage: if a bipartisan US Congress is so concerned about supporting the Kurds in their remarkable effectiveness and loyalty in fighting against ISIS, why have no bills been passed (since at least 2012, when covert Timber Sycamore began arming the SDF) guaranteeing the Kurds a state or protectorate, or recommending the US hinge Turkish aid on sovereign negotiation — a goal evident as early as the 1919 Treaty of Sèvres? If the International Community so fears a shattered Syria and its 70,000 detained ISIS families and fighters (in Al-Hol refugee camp), why haven’t EU countries provided aid or solutions, including prosecuting their own ISIS nationals? In Trump’s own blustery way he has exposed the default “militarization of foreign policy” today — where security problems, strategies, and policy implementation are seen only from the perspective of applying military power — so that military solutions substitute for more proactive and robust forms of conflict resolution and post-conflict planning, from aid to diplomacy. Trump has furthermore exposed the bias on the part of perfectly capable governments — in Europe and among the International Community, including MENA governments — that somehow believe the US can and should solve problems that they won’t. Most complex conflicts, of course, require collective action solutions.
Since 9/11, nearly 3 million US military service members have served on over 5 million deployments — mainly to the Middle East — with total deaths outranking those occurring on 9/11, not to mention life-long injuries (over 30% are disabled from service injuries). Nearly half of those deployed have children. When we continue to “militarize” foreign policy instead of stretching for collaborative solutions that must involve burden-sharing — both by the affected countries and members of the International Community — we place the burden of such default decision-making on American service members. That burden is, indeed, too much to bear.