Anik Joshi: The problem with trying to end ‘forever war’

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 - 11:10am

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All three of the last presidents have emphasized the need to draw down American involvement beyond American borders. President George Bush ran an isolationist campaign and his administration proceeded to embrace neoconservatism and nation building. President Barack Obama decried Bush’s wars as a senator, but once he was elected, he amped them up to the point where there were troops in more countries when he left office than when he came in. President Donald Trump also ran an isolationist campaign and has embraced some of that in the White House. He also called Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq "the single worst decision ever made." President Trump is in charge of the military and could choose to bring the troops home. However, he probably will not despite running on it for the same reason America has stayed in the Middle East for as long as it has. While us being in the Middle East is problematic, us leaving does more damage and that is the paradox of the forever war. 

The “forever war” has many problems, but one major success has been that Americans have been kept safe in a way that they weren’t before. Since 9/11, there have been no attacks on that scale because of the global security apparatus that we helped build and then deploy. American power doesn’t just protect us – it protects civilians in the Middle East as well as civilians all over the world because of the deterrence factor. If Trump decides to withdraw troops and history is any guide, it could be followed by an even bigger deployment. 

The closest parallel to Trump’s pulling out of Syria before fully finishing the job is Obama’s pulling out of Iraq in 2011. At the time, Obama was anxious to fulfill a campaign promise, and he acted quickly to draw down the troop presence until it had all but evaporated by December 2011. In Iraq, there was still work to be done – just like there is in Syria – but domestic political desires and a general American weariness towards Middle East involvement outweighed that. However, Obama did end up redeploying troops to Iraq in one of the crueler twists of irony. Today, ISIS is at one of its lower points, but just like in Iraq, it is not done yet. In all likelihood, this will not be the end of American troops in Syria and rather than losing ground now and having to fight for it again, we would be better served staying there and maintaining our gains.

In addition to problems when we stop engaging, there are issues when we choose not to engage at all. There is no other nation that has both our values and our resources in other words, there is no other nation that can police the world as well as we do. If we decide to draw down our foreign involvement out of some misplaced desire to let the world go on as it would, then the world would be a much more brutal place. Though there are occasional exceptions, American involvement abroad is generally a positive, and when we stay out, bad things tend to happen, such as the Rwandan genocide that took place in the 1990s. 

During that genocide, President Bill Clinton made a decision to avoid involvement because of the political blowback from the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia. As a result, we watched hundreds of thousands of people die between April and July of 1994. Us not being involved didn’t make things better. In fact, it made things far worse for the people who were left to fend for themselves during one of the bloodiest episodes in human history. 

President George H.W. Bush once said that America is more than a country on the roll call between Albania and Zimbabwe, and he was right. We have a duty to uphold freedom, human rights and liberty and to help others who do the same. If we fail to do so, people will be victimized all over the world. While some may say those beyond our borders are not our problem, they are wrong. When we don’t act to prevent problems abroad, they come home to roost, and that tragedy should be avoided at all costs. 

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.