From Endless War to Diplomacy First: Time for a New Foreign Policy

Most Americans are unaware that we are a country at war — seven wars, in fact.

The United States is currently bombing and/or deploying combat troops in at least seven countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. Make that number eight if we include Niger, where four U.S. soldiers were killed last year in a country that most members of Congress weren’t even aware that the U.S. had a military presence. These activities were well under way during the Obama years, but they have intensified during the Trump administration, with more bombs dropped, more civilians killed, and more military threats being tweeted out by our commander-in-chief.

And just as most Americans are unaware of our role in current wars, they don’t realize the immense costs of our all-war-all-the-time foreign policy. A recent estimate by the Costs of War Project at Brown University puts the cumulative costs of our post-9/11 wars at $5.6 trillion, enough to dramatically reduce our chronic budget deficits with trillions left over to rebuild America, shore up our social safety net, and fund a robust diplomatic strategy that can help prevent wars before they start. The war costs include the direct costs of deploying and sustaining troops overseas; the costs of aid to U.S. allies in these wars; and, as is often forgotten, the long-term costs of taking care of the more than two million veterans who have cycled through Iraq, Afghanistan, and other ongoing conflicts. Amazingly, the $5.6 trillion cost isn’t even the whole story — paying off the military-related debt generated by what Harvard economist Linda Bilmes has called our “credit card wars” could cost up to $7.9 trillionin the decades to come.

All of the above-mentioned costs followed after claims by Bush administration officials that the Iraq war — the largest of our post-9/11 interventions — would cost“only” $50 billion to $60 billion. That’s a lot of money for anyone or any agency other than the Pentagon. But it is a tiny fraction of the cost to U.S. taxpayers of Iraq and the related wars that the United States has fought in this century. If nothing else, before our government starts any more wars, there should at least be some truth in advertising as to the potential costs.

The human costs of our recent wars are even more devastating than the economic price tag. Thousands of U.S. troops have died, tens of thousands have received serious physical injuries, and hundreds of thousands suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). In the war zones themselves, the Costs of War Project estimates that over 370,000 people have died on all sides, including over 200,000 civilians. In addition, over 10 million people have been driven from their homes, creating a refugee flow that has transformed large parts of the planet.

Are We Any Safer?

Given all of the above-mentioned costs of conflict, one would at least hope that all of this blood and treasure has made the world a safer place. But the evidence indicates that this is unfortunately not the case.

In Iraq, for example, the main “achievement” of the U.S. intervention that overthrew Saddam Hussein was to install a sectarian government that essentially engaged in ethnic cleansing in significant parts of the country, so alienating a significant portion of the population that they came to believe that almost any alternative would be preferable to the Maliki regime. That’s one of the reasons ISIS was able to sweep in and capture substantial parts of northern Iraq in 2014 with minimal resistance from the local population or the Iraqi army. Not only was the Iraqi army unable to successfully beat back the ISIS invasion, but it abandoned large quantities of U.S. equipment in the field, including over 2,300 armored vehicles that fell into the hands of ISIS fighters.

Meanwhile, ISIS itself grew out of the chaos that followed in the wake of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Many members of ISIS started as participants in Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that was formed in opposition to the U.S invasion. And a number of leaders of what was to become ISIS met and plotted their future in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. They then developed a hardened cadre of fighters in the war in Syria, and ISIS was born. To be clear, no one can hold the United States government responsible for the creation of ISIS, but the instability created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq helped create fertile ground for it to be created, and to grow into a major security threat to the United States and its allies. It was a horrific unintended consequence of a foreign policy that too often has opted to shoot first and ask questions later.

In Afghanistan, which at nearly 17 years is the longest war in U.S. history, the Taliban is still a major player, the government has been plagued by corruption that has wasted billions in U.S. aid, and morale in the Afghan Security Forces remains low. As difficult as it may prove to be, a negotiated solution is the only answer in Afghanistan. We’ve tried war for 17 years and it has not worked.

In Africa, where the United States has deployed 6,000 troops and engages in some form of military interaction with African military forces on a daily basis, the number of terrorist groups has grown. And the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya resulted in raids on that nation’s massive arsenal of small arms by terrorist organizations that are now putting them to use throughout north Africa.

Perhaps most tragic of all, the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, pushed millions of people to the brink of famine, and sparked the worst cholera outbreak in living memory — all with U.S.-supplied bombs, missiles, aircraft, and armored vehicles, along with help in refueling Saudi planes for their bombing runs over Yemen. Far from making anyone safer, the Yemen war has resulted in what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. And it has created deep enmity against the United States that could make parts of Yemen recruiting areas for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS.

As if the impacts of our current wars aren’t bad enough, things could always get worse, if, for example, President Trump’s threats against North Korea or Iran lead to yet another armed conflict. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but the best way to ensure that it doesn’t is for Congress and the public to speak out loudly, clearly, and often that war is not the answer.

Reversing Our Policy of Diplomatic Disarmament

While using our soldiers to fight far flung wars has become routine, using our diplomats to prevent conflict has become increasingly rare. This is in part due to a lack of resources — the State Department’s budget is less than one-twelfth of what we lavish on the Pentagon, and the Trump administration wants to cut it even further from there, perhaps by 30% or more.

President Trump may not recognize the value of funding diplomacy, but our military leaders most certainly do. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, has pointed out, there are more personnel running one of our 11 aircraft carrier strike groups than there are trained diplomats at the U.S Department of State. And our current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has told Congress that if we don’t adequately fund the State Department, “I need to buy more ammunition” to fight the additional wars that could result.

The Trump administration’s antipathy to diplomacy goes beyond the question of money. For example, while U.S. Special Forces have deployed to most countries in Africa in the past few years, the Trump administration has yet to appoint ambassadors to the vast majority of African countries. And even as the president prepares to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in May or June of this year, his administration still hasn’t appointed an ambassador to South Korea. In addition, scores of trained diplomats are fleeing the State Department, and it’s not clear how many of them will be replaced, or who will replace them.

This policy of “diplomatic disarmament” has been accompanied by attacks on the most important diplomatic achievement of the Obama years — the Iran nuclear deal. Contrary to the misleading claims of its critics, the deal is working. Iran has gotten rid of the vast majority of its enriched uranium, dismantled a major nuclear plant, and passed all of the inspections carried out on its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The deal is keeping Iran from getting a bomb, and it has for the moment at least headed off the calls for war from hawks like John Bolton — Donald Trump’s current National Security Advisor.

A Better Way

There is an alternative to the policy of permanent war, if we can persuade our government to try it — diplomacy first.

Elements of a diplomacy first policy would be to reaffirm the Iran nuclear deal; engage in genuine, patient, and persistent diplomacy to curb and eventually eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program; maintain current arms control agreements with Russia and seek new ones; stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen; expand funding for the State Department and establish more training programs for diplomats-in-the-making; reinvigorate people-to-people exchange programs with all countries, including potential adversaries; and restore the role of Congress in having sole authority to approve the deployment of U.S. troops to foreign wars.

Making the transition from a policy of endless war to a policy of diplomacy first won’t be easy, but it is essential. Our current policy is too wasteful, and too dangerous, to continue.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.