Will America's endless wars without victory be the next source fueling popular revolt against the political establishment? In 2016, Washington pundits were shocked to discover the grim reality and anger of working people in "flyover country" that fueled the candidacies of Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. The foreign policy establishment of both parties may soon discover that utterly ignoring popular discontent with America's wars may fuel a similar populist eruption.
Trump appealed to this skepticism during his campaign. He claimed — dishonestly — to have been an opponent of the Iraq invasion from the beginning. He scorned the "nonsense" wars without victory. He mocked the Libyan debacle that Hillary Clinton celebrated as secretary of state. Before the campaign, he tweeted regularly that we should get out of Afghanistan. He promised that the United States would start winning again, vowing to bomb the "s---" out of the Islamic State.
Upon taking office, these populist postures were quickly abandoned. Trump, against his "original instinct," sent more troops to Afghanistan, sustaining the United States' longest war into its 17th year. He dispatched troops to Syria, with the Pentagon announcing that they would stay even after the Islamic State was defeated. He doubled down on U.S. support in Saudi Arabia's criminal assault on Yemen. He increased the pace of drone bombings. U.S. special operations forces have been dispatched to 149 countries in his first year in office, a bump up from the 138 countries of President Barack Obama's last year. With his promised infrastructure bill still not in sight, his only jobs program has been a call to boost the Pentagon's budget while striving to break Obama's record for arms sales abroad.
It is true on the surface level that voters broadly support the establishment consensus. Most Americans remain committed to U.S. alliances, think NATO essential to U.S. security and support U.S. military presence in regions such as Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The military remains the most popular institution in survey after survey. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found for the first time that 62 percent of Americans expressed support for using military force to defend South Korea if North Korea attacked.
But all this masks discontent. Americans overwhelmingly supported the initial post-Sept. 11 invasion of Afghanistan — the "good war," as Obama dubbed it — yet by 2014 a growing majority thought it hadn't been worth the cost. Opinions turned against the Iraq invasion even faster. And aside from the Korean peninsula, the public is worried about new ventures: While nearly 60 percent supported Trump's missile attack against Syria after allegations of chemical weapons use, 61 percent agreed that Trump had no "clear plan" for the situation in Syria. The Chicago Council poll found broad majorities opposed to U.S. military involvement in any confrontation between Japan and China over disputed islands or in opposition to Russia on behalf of Ukraine.
The unease reflects longstanding American attitudes. Unlike our foreign policy establishment, which revels in the United States' perpetual global engagement, Americans prefer peaceful pursuits. They are slow to anger and not eager for military engagement. Historically, Americans have been reluctant to go to war, and when called to fight, they want to go in big, win quickly and get out. Wars that continue for years with indefinite results — from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan — soon lose support.
That common-sense attitude is directly contradicted by current bipartisan U.S. policy. After the Iraq War debacle, U.S. policymakers moved to continue the wars at a lower cost, with fewer troops on the ground and lower visibility. That strategy may keep the United States from losing but virtually ensures that it will never win. Instead, "winning" is redefined to mean not losing, while staying permanently engaged. That commits the country to sacrificing lives and resources in unending conflicts of indefinite ends. Since the United States' volunteer military forces are drawn from what is primarily an economic draft — enlisting the sons and daughters of poor and working people looking for a way out — those sacrifices are rarely shared by the national security establishment that sets the policy.
Will this affect U.S. politics? Two scholars, Francis Shen and Douglas Kriner, suggest it may already have. In their recent study they found "a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country and those communities whose young people are not." They dubbed this the "casualty gap" and suggested that it may have contributed to Trump's victory. After controlling for alternative explanations — including economic, class and race — the authors found a "significant and meaningful relationship between a community's rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump."
In three successive elections — Obama over John McCain and Mitt Romney, and Trump over Hillary Clinton — Americans voted for the candidate most skeptical of the United States' wars. Yet the wars and the sacrifice of lives and resources continue. During the campaign, Trump charged that "the people opposing us are the same people — and think of this — who've wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death and more suffering. Imagine if that money had been spent at home." Yet now Trump is committed to spending trillions more on the same wars.
Will there be a reckoning for this folly? That will require political leaders or political movements willing to challenge the bipartisan establishment consensus that now exists. The policy makes no sense. The lives lost and money wasted are real. The only question is who has the courage to state that the emperor has no clothes.