Ending “Endless War” Can’t Just Become an Empty Slogan

A consensus is growing that the worldwide post–9/11 “forever war” must come to an end. But that goal is in danger of being watered down to the point of meaninglessness by politicians and think tanks still in thrall to the national security state and its war on terror.

An anti-war demonstration in Chicago, Illinois on August 10, 1968. David Wilson / flickr

Call it war fatigue, call it a realization of a mistake, or just call it a strategic repositioning, but it is clear that “endless war” is no longer considered de rigueur in Washington. The latest CNN/Des Moines Register presidential debates attempted to tease out exactly what the Democratic candidates meant by repeatedly saying, “We must end endless war,” in campaign rallies and in speeches. To the media, this becomes flattened; both Donald Trump and the Democrats say they are doing it — but who is right?

President Trump seems to favor the slogan when it suits him (particularly to cover whatever made him withdraw troops in Syria, thereby give the green light to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to invade), but it hasn’t stopped him from expanding presidential war powers or taking us to the brink of a major conflict with Iran. He has also ramped up strikes in Afghanistan, resulting in more civilian casualties, and expanded the drone war and aerial bombings, including rolling back some Obama-era reforms. His obsession with dismantling Barack Obama’s legacy has turned a relatively constructive relationship with Iran into an escalating confrontation. Trump is not ending endless war, no matter how much the media portrays him as wanting to rein in our military misadventures abroad.

There seems to be major disagreement about what ending “endless war” or the “forever war” means. Taken simply, it would mean repealing the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which give legal authorization to the president to deploy troops and use drone attacks in areas of conflict from the Philippines to Mali. It certainly means ending the war in Afghanistan, the United States’ longest war. But in a larger sense, it requires a shift in US activity in the world, from a state of constant and endless war toward an attempt at peace. Politicians have been talking out of both sides of their mouth when prescribing and carrying out policy while deploying the phrase — they want to use the popularity of the idea without the rupture of policy change. They want to have their proverbial cake and eat it, too. This has been evident in the Democratic presidential primary.

Former vice president Joe Biden is attempting to position himself as an establishment voice with credibility based on his experience — his presidency would be a restoration of the American status quo. In advertisements, debates, and op-eds, he shows himself as a statesman, the man to bring the United States back to a leadership role in the world. In the same sentence, he calls for an “end to the forever wars,” but he does not want to end the war in Afghanistan, nor end “patrolling the Gulf,” nor bring troops home from Iraq and Syria. This is clearly not a call to end the forever war against terrorism, but a shift to what he calls being “strong and smart,” using special forces under the 2001 AUMF to reinforce local governments — remarkably similar to the current ineffective and radicalizing setup. It is disingenuous at best.

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, while playing up his Afghanistan service, has repeatedly argued for repealing the 2001 AUMF, but he wants to replace it with an authorization that has a sunset. He also believes in the need for special forces and intelligence in Afghanistan — again, not a full withdrawal, not a true end. This is similar to what Obama wanted to do in his second term when he was pursuing an authorization to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq but couldn’t get it passed. It’s not clear what President Buttigieg would do if he was in the same situation as Obama and couldn’t get an authorization that he wanted. Would he continue the endless wars, or would he repeal the 2001 AUMF and not replace it, thus forcing a withdrawal from places he says must never “be used to become a terrorist bases” again?

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have sketched out their ideas and diagnosed the ills of endless war, both its ineffectiveness and its immorality. They want to prioritize diplomatic tools over military ones, and base their future actions on multilateralism rather than unilateralism, but they will face the same questions a President Buttigieg or Biden, or even current President Trump, does if truly withdrawing troops. Will they be alright with the criticism they’ll receive? Will they be comfortable being labeled weak? Will they be able to handle the Neville Chamberlain comparisons or being called isolationists? Both plan to involve Congress in new AUMFs — what if that fails? Will they have the courage to withdraw from potential “hot spots” of violence without congressional cover?

Anyone who wants to end endless war will face strong opposition from the military industrial complex, the pundit industrial complex, and fear-mongering politicians who stoke fear for political gain. Responsibly disengaging from these conflicts, unlike Trump’s withdrawal from northeastern Syria by phone call and tweet, will be contentious, as different local interests push and pull. The fear of being blamed for another 9/11 has been a leading cause of the drift and further expansion of the forever wars. The always dubious and cringeworthy claim of “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” combined with a genuine misunderstanding of jihadist terrorism, has led to the conventional DC wisdom that every ungoverned part of the world is a potential launching point for an attack on the United States. This safe-haven theory has been discredited in academic circles, but it has major credence in Washington and among the media.

It is important that the phrase “end endless war” mean something concrete. It is popular today because people want a different foreign policy. It cannot be watered down to a skeletal version of our currently reality; pulling combat troops back from Afghanistan but creating a shadow war of Special Forces and the CIA; patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Sahel, or the Horn of Africa; or drones bombing Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. These are all the features of endless war, and a congressional rubber stamp will not make them more effective at bringing peace. To end endless war, we must take a hard look at our foreign policy and shift our thinking. Primacy and its ever-expanding threat radar and distorting interests will never let us bring our troops home. If we end our quest for global dominance, we can learn to revalue peace, diplomacy, and rebuilding our own country.