It’s a notion that is difficult to resist — who exactly is for “endless war,” after all? — and rooted in deep public frustration with the costly but seemingly fruitless interventions of the post-9/11 era. But as a guide to policymaking, opposition to “forever wars” is not useful. Such terms conflate three separate concerns, each of which demands separate consideration.
First and most fundamentally, opposition to “endless wars” reflects skepticism regarding the deployment of U.S. military forces overseas, and of intervention as a policy tool. According to the Defense Department, there are about 200,000 U.S. service members deployed overseas in nearly 170 different countries or territories — a remarkable number given that there are just 195 countries in the world.
Yet the differences among the United States’ various military missions are stark, and each deserves independent scrutiny rather than blanket opposition or, for that matter, knee-jerk support. It should be obvious that the 55,000 U.S. troops in Japan are engaged in different work than our 5,200 or so service members in Iraq. Less well-recognized, however, is how much even one combat mission in the Middle East differs from another.
At its height, the Iraq War involved almost 160,000 U.S. soldiers. The U.S. military mission in Syria, on the other hand, has involved roughly 2,000 soldiers who have rallied a local partner force 70,000-strong, enabled a coalition air campaign, and provided a platform for civilian stabilization activities. It was an altogether more economical deployment, and perhaps even a model for future interventions. Yet both President Trump and his critics have lumped Syria in with Iraq and Afghanistan as another example of “endless war.”
The second concern covered by the term “endless war” is the seeming overemphasis on the broader Middle East in U.S. foreign policy in recent decades; critics use the term to inveigh against involvement in Syria or Afghanistan far more often, than say, Somalia. As we engage in what seems an inevitable shift away from the Middle East, however, we will find that the real problem is less the prioritization of the Middle East than the heavily military focus of U.S. policy there.
External intervention in the region clearly hasn’t always promoted stability — just see post-2003 Iraq. And major wars aren’t the only problem. The United States also sends the lion’s share of our global security assistance — training and equipment — to the Middle East. Yet as events of the past several years attest, these programs have an underwhelming record of delivering security.
On their own, military intervention and security assistance can’t solve the deeper problems that drive conflict, such as stagnant economies or repressive political systems. Nor have they stemmed the growth of violent extremism, which has seen a manifold increase since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet, ironically, even as we have grown weary of intervening, we have also decreased our commitment to promoting economic reform and political liberalization, or to the diplomatic leadership required to prevent conflicts or resolve them short of war.
Finally, worries about “endless war” often stem from a mismatch between stated U.S. objectives and the means we are willing to use to achieve them. This has been a bipartisan malady, and the causes are complex. Our immense military and economic advantages lead us to set unrealistic goals, and the impatience of our politics sometimes leads us to withdraw support even from achievable missions
Syria provides examples of both fallacies. One can fault President Barack Obama, who insisted that “Assad must go” but failed to devise a strategy that could come close to delivering such an outcome. But one can also fault Trump, who refused to spend even the funds that Congress appropriated for stabilization in northeastern Syria and who has reduced a successful 2,000-troop mission to one consisting of several hundred — apparently without scaling back its objectives.
There is no catch-all approach that will end the “endless wars.” One thing we clearly shouldn’t do, however, is to renounce military intervention as a policy tool. The use or the threat of military action has often been a force for peace and stability — see, for example, Cold War deployments to Europe, or the NATO mission in the Balkans during the 1990s. If we reduce interventions by ignoring problems around the world, our solace will be temporary as small, far-off crises grow into large, unavoidable ones.
The real antidote to “endless war” is more disciplined policymaking. The United States needs to adopt strategies that will reduce the need for interventions, reinvigorating our use of tools like diplomacy, deterrence, and economic statecraft. And when intervention becomes necessary — which it inevitably will — we should use force economically and with clear, realistic aims in mind. A less engaged United States benefits neither the world nor ourselves; a United States energetically committed to policies designed to prevent conflict will advance not only our own interests, but those of humanity writ large.