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The Nonintervention Delusion

What War Is Good For

Paved with good intentions: Bernie Sanders at a rally in Michigan, April 2019 Brittany Gleeson / The New York Times / Redux

As the casualties and financial costs of the United States’ Middle Eastern wars have mounted, Americans’ appetite for new interventions—and their commitment to existing ones—has understandably diminished. The conventional wisdom now holds that the next phase in the United States’ global life should be marked by military restraint, allowing Washington to focus on other pressing issues. This position seems to be one of the few principles uniting actors as diverse as foreign policy realists, progressives, nearly all of the presidential candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, and President Donald Trump. 

It’s not hard to see why Americans would look at U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and conclude that such interventions should never be repeated. The costs of these wars have been extraordinary: at a rally in Ohio in April 2018, Trump estimated them at $7 trillion over 17 years and concluded that the country has nothing to show for the effort “except death and destruction.” Although the precise financial cost depends on how one counts, what is certain is that more than 4,500 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq and nearly 2,500 in Afghanistan, plus tens of thousands injured in both wars—to say nothing of the casualties among allied forces, military contractors, and local civilians. Critics of these resource-intensive operations blame them for bogging down the United States in a region of second-tier importance and distracting Washington from the greater threats of China and Russia, as well as from pressing domestic issues. 

With the costs so high, and the benefits seen as low, the imperative is obvious to political leaders in both parties: get out of the existing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and avoid starting new ones. In his State of the Union address this year, Trump declared that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” Scores of House Democrats have signed a pledge to “end the forever war,” referring to the global war on terrorism and U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq,

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