Proponents of ending U.S. wars and military engagement all over the world cheered a growing right-left coalition of support during a foreign policy conference last week in Washington, DC.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a featured speaker at the conference, hailed Congress’ recent bipartisan passage of a resolution calling for the end of U.S. military involvement in Yemen. “I don’t think we’ve ever before had both houses vote on something to rebuke the president to say we shouldn’t be at war,” he said.
On Thursday, the House voted 247-175, with one Republican voting “present,” to call on the president to remove U.S. forces from hostilities in Yemen within 30 days. The Senate has also already passed the resolution, in a rare bipartisan effort to rein in presidential war-making powers that rely on authorizations for the use of military force passed after 9/11.
“I do think we’re on the precipice of a new period of collaboration across the aisle on the left and right when it comes to stopping endless wars and reining in military force overseas,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who was a featured speaker.
“On both sides of the aisle there is genuine concern about Congress ceding its authority on matters of military force, and concern with our involvement in disastrous conflicts overseas,” he added.
The conference, titled “The Future of War Powers,” convened lawmakers and foreign policy and military experts from across the political spectrum on Capitol Hill to discuss the need to limit endless foreign military engagements, with a focus on the Afghanistan War.
Speakers included Sens. Paul, Udall, Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Ken Buck (R-CO), Tom Massie (R-KY), Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, and speakers from the libertarian CATO Institute and Defense Priorities think-tanks. The event was sponsored by the non-partisan Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy, The American Conservative, The Nation, and The National Interest.
Many of those speakers and institutions advocated for the end of U.S. forces in Yemen, as well as calling on restraint in foreign policy.
Although from diverse political backgrounds, speakers all discussed the need to think hard about the consequences of war before waging them, and how difficult it is to wind down war once it has begun.
Paul noted that calls to end the Afghanistan War immediately are criticized as “precipitous,” even after 17 years of being waged. At the same time, he said calls to end the war gradually are criticized as tipping off the enemy, “cutting and running,” and “surrendering.”
“So you can’t announce when you’re going to leave — which would be gradually, and you can’t leave now — that’s precipitous. Really, how do you leave?” he asked.
Speakers noted falling American public support for the Afghanistan War. When the fighting first began, about 80 percent of Americans supported it, according to a Gallup poll. Today, 51 percent would support ending the war, according to a recent YouTube poll.
“Public support has collapsed for the mission in Afghanistan,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO Institute. “What is the mission today? It is not clear to me.”
“The United States in America is involved in endless war…Because you can’t be blamed if you stay for all the bad things that happen when you leave,” he said.
Speakers faulted Congress for being increasingly reluctant to vote to authorize and end wars, and said members are out of touch with the public.
“[It’s] more comfortable for the legislature to not have to take stands,” said Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest. “America wages war on the credit card. We don’t pay for these wars. We finance them through debt. Congress doesn’t declare war, it carps from the sidelines.”
Retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary asked, “Why has not that august body of the people’s representatives done what you have clearly told them what to do?”
“Americans are tired of wars. They keep electing the candidate who expresses the greatest skepticism about them,” said Robert Borosage, contributing editor for The Nation.
Speakers also pinned blame those within the foreign policy establishment in Washington who advocate against winding down foreign military engagements.
“We have a foreign policy establishment that has been insular, self-perpetuating, and utterly unaccountable for a series of repeated failures,” Borosage said. The current wars, he said, are continuing “without attracting public attention, and require very little public sacrifice except for those enlisted to fight.”
Nathan Jerauld, former Army captain and graduate student at Syracuse University, said the growing number of Americans not knowing anyone who has served in war also keeps Americans disconnected from the realities of war.
“In a sense, the military is becoming mythical folk heroes,” he said. “In some sense, we might as well be deployed to the moon,” he said.
He also noted the hidden costs of taking care of veterans after they come home from war. On surviving an insider attack from an Afghan soldier, he said, “Experiencing that is not the hardest part of war. It’s dealing with the aftermath of that every day for the rest of your life.”
“If we want to preserve our all-volunteer force, if we want to continue incentivizing our young men and women to join the ranks of our military, we must do better for veterans,” he said.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, senior fellow at Defense Priorities, spoke about the futility of having troops on the ground to fight terrorism, sharing his firsthand experience on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
He discussed a bloody fight in 2010 to capture a Taliban town, where the roughly 60 Afghan forces accompanying U.S. forces decided to just stop fighting and walk away, and leave U.S. troops to finish the job. He said there were at least three U.S. service members killed, and 15 wounded, with one Afghan troop killed.
About a month later, after U.S. forces succeeded in taking the town and were handing it over to Afghan police, the Afghan police forces heard a rumor about the Taliban coming back, and just abandoned their post. “They literally left everything behind,” Davis said.
The Taliban walked back into the town, he said. “It was as though we had never been there,” Davis said. “On the strategic level, it will be the same when we leave Afghanistan — as though we were never there.”
He compared it to putting one’s fist in a bucket of sand. It leaves an imprint while there, but once it is pulled out, things return back to the same. “It really doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, et al. It’s going to be the same,” he said.
Antle noted there are mixed signs on war from President Trump, who has said he wants to end the war in Syria and in Afghanistan, but is planning to veto the joint resolution calling for ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen.
But, he said, Trump’s rhetoric has prompted both Republicans and Democrats to have conversations about foreign policy.
“Whatever the deficiencies of the Trump record, the Trump rhetoric allows Republicans and conservatives to have conversations about these foreign policy issues that were very difficult to have under, say, George W. Bush, when it was a bit more of a monologue than a dialogue on questions of war and peace on the right,” he said.
“I think that also progressive forces, principled progressives who have long been resistant to building up the warfare state, have long been resistant to the concept of forever war, I think that they have been emboldened by the Trump presidency,” he added.
Borosage blamed part of that on how the foreign policy establishment frames the issue.
“[Presidents] are faced…with questions of whether we will escalate or we will retreat — a question that phrases the issue in a way that makes the answer almost inevitable,” he said.
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