Bonnie Kristian is a member of Defense Priorities, editor-in-chief of The Week and a columnist for Christianity Today. His writings have also appeared on CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among others.
We may never see unassailable evidence or demystification of Atlantic history alleging that President Donald Trump privately refers to the war dead of the United States as “losers” or “suckers” and otherwise insults American forces and veterans.
Neither believers nor deniers are likely to produce video, audio, or documentary evidence of Trump’s guilt or innocence. Even a president in the age of social media has unrecorded moments.
But while our national conversation touched on the subject of the mistreatment of American troops, our attention should shift beyond Trump himself to a bigger and more enduring insult: Washington’s foreign policy of the past 19 years. If Trump’s alleged comments offend us on behalf of the troops, this state of perpetual war should infuriate us.
For nearly two decades and more than three administrations, United States foreign policy has assigned American soldiers to reckless, counterproductive, miserable and even impossible tasks. He asked them to act well outside of their legitimate purpose and their enlistment oath. He charged them with battles unrelated to American interests and neglected constitutional guarantees. He called on our troops to kill and be killed as instruments of aggression rather than defense.
Our foreign policy after September 11 promised swift victories and fighting that would last a generation. He lengthened the deployments of soldiers and occupied them with endless occupation, counterinsurgency and nation building. This brought in new commanders and tactics and left broader strategic questions: “Is this fair?” Is it necessary? What does “victory” look like and how is it achieved? – usually unsolicited. The results were predictably disastrous.
This foreign policy uses American forces to defend dictators, take sides in regional religious unrest, intervene in civil wars, topple governments, and interfere in situations we have never been able to resolve. Like an invisible conveyor belt, it keeps the military running, but never moves towards condition-based withdrawals, paradoxically based on conditions unlikely in the absence of a US withdrawal. He slanders any objection to this state of affairs as “irresponsible,” as if there could be anything responsible about a permanent state of war.
This dysfunction is already apparent to American veterans and active-duty military personnel, as poll after poll has shown in recent years. Six in ten veterans want the United States to be less militarily engaged overseas, and seven in ten support the United States’ total withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. Eight in ten military and veterans say these two wars “go on too long,” and a strong majority of veterans say the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were not worth fighting. Only one in three thinks that our foreign policy after September 11 has made our country safer. As Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner wrote of one such investigation: “The Americans most directly affected by this never-ending war adamantly want it to end. … The people who wage our wars want less war when we can help them.
And U.S can help him. The most generous interpretation possible of Trump’s alleged comments is that he also wants less war. This was the meaning suggested by retired Green Beret Joe Kent in an Associated Press report. “I didn’t receive any kind of disrespect,” Kent said. “He seemed to me to be a leader who was deeply in conflict with the idea of sending people to die.”
Trump’s foreign policy record to date does not convince me from this point of view. He’s happy to talk about bringing troops home and ending “endless wars,” but he’s notoriously slow – if not downright oppositional – to put those words into action. If the president is really in conflict over sending people to die, he can keep his many promises and finally stop sending them.
In fact, whatever Trump said or didn’t say or wanted to say is an option always available to him or to any president. The foreign policy of the next two decades need not duplicate that of the last two. We could learn from our mistakes, re-evaluate our grand strategy, heed this remarkable consensus within the military community, and finally change course.
If our concern for the military, veterans and war dead is more than performative outrage, we should reject the shameful foreign policy they have borne the brunt of.
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