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