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Rear gunner in Afghanistan

"In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the regimes were quickly defeated by US-led forces, but peace and stability proved to be elusive." (Photo: U.S. Army/flickr/cc)

Our Misguided 'Wars of Choice'

Jeffrey D. Sachs

There is one foreign policy goal that matters above all the others, and that is to keep the United States out of a new war, whether in Syria, North Korea, or elsewhere. In recent days, President Trump has struck Syria with Tomahawk missiles, bombed Afghanistan with the most powerful nonnuclear bomb in the US arsenal, and has sent an armada toward nuclear-armed North Korea. We could easily find ourselves in a rapidly escalating war, one that could pit the United States directly against nuclear-armed countries of China, North Korea, and Russia.

Such a war, if it turned nuclear and global, could end the world. Even a nonnuclear war could end democracy in the United States, or the United States as a unified nation. Who thought the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan would end the Soviet Union itself? Which of the belligerents at the start of World War I foresaw the catastrophic end of four giant empires — Hohenzollern (Prussia), Romanov (Russia), Ottoman, and Hapsburg — as a result of the war?

"With just a few weeks on the job, Trump seems to be continuing or expanding the wars of his predecessors."

These are terrifying prospects, and they may seem unreal, even preposterous. Yet Trump is impetuous, unstable, and inexperienced. His foreign policies swing wildly from day to day. He makes threats, such as attacking North Korea, that could have horrific, indeed catastrophic, consequences.

Think back to JFK’s Executive Committee as it grappled with the Cuban missile crisis. Many of Kennedy’s military advisers would have led us to thermonuclear war. The Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, with their cool heads and profound sense of responsibility, saved us despite their advisers, not because of them. We should all shudder when contemplating an ExComm meeting in our time.

Sad to say, America’s history of war is not encouraging. America’s shining nobility in World War II and its positive, though flawed, role in the Korean War, should not obscure America’s many disastrous wars of choice, when America went to war for deeply flawed reasons and ended up causing havoc at home and abroad.

America’s costly wars of choice have been driven by many factors. President William McKinley took America to war against Spain in 1898 in search of overseas empire. President Woodrow Wilson took America as a late entrant into World War I, in 1917, in pursuit of his deeply flawed vision of a “war to end all wars,” instead helping to usher in a “peace to end all peace.” President Lyndon Johnson took America to war in Vietnam, in 1964, mainly to protect himself against right-wing charges that he was “weak on communism.” President George W. Bush took America to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 to topple the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, according to the remarkably naive neoconservative game plan to rid the greater Middle East of regimes hostile to US interests. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended these wars into Libya and Syria in 2011 to topple Moammar Khadafy and Bashar al-Assad.

Now, with just a few weeks on the job, Trump seems to be continuing or expanding the wars of his predecessors, while threatening to initiate a war with nuclear-armed North Korea.

There are three key points about these wars of choice. First, in the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Mideast wars, the United States attacked the other countries first, not in self-defense, as in World War II. Lyndon Johnson expanded the war in Vietnam on the pretext that North Vietnam had attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, but Johnson knew that the claim was false. Nor had Saddam, Khadafy, or Assad attacked the United States. In the case of Iraq, the pretext was Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As for Libya and Syria, the US interventions were allegedly for humanitarian purposes, to protect civilian populations against Khadafy and Assad. In both cases, the civilian populations ended up suffering horrific harms from the US interventions.

Second, since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, such wars of choice are against international law. The UN Charter allows for wars of self-defense and military actions agreed upon by the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council may approve military interventions to protect the civilian populations from the crimes of their own government under the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect.” No country can go it alone other than in self-defense.

Many Americans dismiss the UN Security Council on the grounds that Russia will veto every needed action. Yet this is absolutely not the case. Russia and China indeed agreed to a military intervention in Libya in 2011 in order to protect Libya’s civilian population. But then NATO used that UN resolution as a pretext to actually topple Khadafy, not merely to protect the civilian population. Russia and China also recently teamed up with the United States to achieve the nuclear agreement with Iran, to adopt the Paris Climate Agreement, and to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. Diplomacy is feasible. Getting one’s way all the time is not.

Third, these wars of choice have been disasters, one after the next. In the Spanish-American war, the United States gained an empire and fertile farmland in Cuba, but also decades of political instability in that country and the Philippines that eventually resulted in Philippine independence and an anti-American revolution in Cuba. In World War I, the US intervention turned the tide toward the victory of France and the United Kingdom over Germany and the Ottoman Empire, only to be followed by a disastrous peace settlement, instability in Europe and the Middle East, and the rise of Hitler in the ensuing chaos 15 years later. In Vietnam, the war led to 55,000 Americans dead, 1 million or more Vietnamese killed, genocide in next-door Cambodia, destabilization of the US economy, and, eventually, complete US withdrawal.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the regimes were quickly defeated by US-led forces, but peace and stability proved to be elusive. All of these countries have been wracked by continuing war and terrorism and US military engagement. And in Syria, the United States was not even successful in toppling Assad, since Assad had powerful allies, Russia and Iran. America’s intervention to topple Assad has escalated into a full-fledged proxy war involving many countries and jihadist groups, and of course the entry of ISIS into Syria.

It’s not so hard to rev the American public to fight a war, even a horribly misguided one, if the government claims falsely that the United States is under attack or is acting in the service of some grand humanitarian cause. Yet these have been the pretexts, not the reasons, for the wars of choice. The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, most likely caused by an onboard explosion in the ship’s coal bunkers, became a cause for war when the sinking was attributed to Spain. The Gulf of Tonkin attack on the USS Maddox was fabricated. The weapons of mass destruction of Saddam Hussein turned out not to exist. The claim that Khadafy was about to commit genocide against his people was propaganda.

"It is essential to break the secrecy over US foreign policy making."

The ongoing war in Syria is yet another case in point. Our intervention there in support of a rebellion against Bashar al-Assad is ostensibly on humanitarian grounds. Yet we know from WikiLeaks and other sources that US strategists were looking for a way to topple Assad for years before 2011, hoping that economic instability and IMF-backed austerity would do the job. The United States and Saudi Arabia wanted him out because of Iran’s backing of the regime. When the Arab Spring erupted in early 2011, the Obama administration judged this to be the opportune moment to nudge both Assad and Khadafy out the door. Khadafy’s removal required a NATO-led war over several months, while Assad could not be removed because of his backing by Iran and Russia.

When Assad showed his staying power, Obama ordered the CIA to coordinate efforts with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to defeat the regime through a support for anti-regime fighters on the ground. Thus, the quick exit of Assad once dreamed of by US strategists turned into a full-blown regional war, with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and Iran all competing for power through proxy fighters including jihadist groups.

I believe that four reforms to foreign policy are vital for our survival in this growing mayhem.

First, the CIA should be drastically restructured, to be solely an intelligence agency rather than an unaccountable secret army of the president. When the CIA was created in 1947, it was given the two very different roles of intelligence and covert operations. Truman was alarmed about this dual role, and time has proved him right. The CIA has been a vital success when it provides key intelligence but an unmitigated disaster when it serves as the president’s secret army. We need to end the military functions of the CIA, yet Trump has recently expanded the CIA’s war-making powers by giving the agency the authority to target drone strikes without Pentagon approval.

Second, it is vital for Congress to reestablish decision-making over war and peace. That is its constitutional role, indeed perhaps its most important constitutional role as a bulwark of democratic government. Yet Congress has almost completely abandoned this responsibility. When Trump brandishes the sword toward North Korea, or drops bombs on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Congress is mute, neither investigating nor granting nor revoking any legislative authority for such actions. This is Congress’s greatest dereliction of duty. Congress needs to wake up before Trump launches an impetuous and potentially calamitous war against nuclear-armed North Korea.

"America has developed a level of wealth, productivity, and technological know-how utterly unimaginable in the past. Yet we put everything at risk through our wanton addiction to war."

Third, it is essential to break the secrecy over US foreign policy making. Most urgently, we need an inquest into America’s involvement in Syria in order for the public to understand how we arrived at the current morass. Since Congress is unlikely to undertake this, and since the executive branch would of course never do so, the responsibility lies with civil society, especially academia and other policy experts, to coalesce around an information gathering and reporting function.

Fourth, we need urgently to return to global diplomacy within the UN Security Council. Yes, Russia will veto many US proposals, and vice versa. But it is precisely the success in forging diplomatic agreements, such as with the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, that will enable our survival.

We are at the 100th anniversary of World War I, and countless historians have noted the similarities of that time and our own. On the eve of World War I, the world economy was booming; technology and science were ascendant; and world war seemed unthinkable. Yet the very dynamism of technology and the world economy was provoking fear and loathing among the major powers. The competing empires each came to view their positions as precarious relative to the others, and to believe that a war could be a resolution to those fears.

The main difference is of course the incomparably greater destructive potential today. As JFK said in his inaugural address a half-century ago, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

America has developed a level of wealth, productivity, and technological know-how utterly unimaginable in the past. Yet we put everything at risk through our wanton addiction to war. If we instead used our vast knowledge, economic might, and technological excellence to help cure diseases, end poverty, protect the environment, and ensure global food security, America would profoundly inspire other nations and do much to secure a new era of global peace.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Sachs is the author, most recently, of "A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism" (2020). Other books include: "Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable" (2017)  and The Age of Sustainable Development," (2015) with Ban Ki-moon.

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