Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

‘End Forever Wars’ is a Sound Bite, Not a Security Policy

More and more Democratic candidates are echoing Trump’s pledges to withdraw from conflicts abroad. Few say how to do it, nor how it will make us safer.

Bernie Sanders has a “vision for ending America’s endless wars.” That’s what the press release says, anyway. Sanders this week rolled out an article in the respected journal Foreign Affairs explaining his position. 

I would have rejected his op-ed, had it come to Defense One. We have one general rule we ask of commentary writers: come with a solution. An ask. A prescription to the problem you see. The senator from Vermont offers a compelling description of today’s status quo. But so far he, like his fellow presidential candidates, falls short of well-explained, workable solutions. 

On Monday, two more signed on to a pledge to end “forever wars.” Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro joined Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Andrew Yang; and former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Ark. Other signatories include Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; and Jim McGovern, D-Mass. There are no Republican signatories. 

It’s fashionable for far-left candidates — like far-right and libertarian candidates before them — to declare that it’s time to focus on the homefront and pull Americans back from overseas entanglements. It’s part of what got Donald Trump elected. It’s a movement with real legs under it. And in these early days of the 2020 election cycle, it’s manifesting in many ways. One is in the foreign-policy speeches of some presidential candidates. But while some of those candidates want to show that they are global-minded leaders on foreign policy, apparently it’s still too early to say exactly how they’ll do any of what they promise. 

In the first paragraph of Sanders’ Foreign Affairs piece, there is a glaring factual error. “Earlier this month, President Donald Trump ordered thousands of additional U.S. troops to the Middle East to confront Tehran and its proxies.” No, he did not. The president re-assigned to the Iran mission fewer than 2,000 troops, most of whom were in the region already and hardly any who are trigger-pullers likely to directly confront anything. But Sanders sets up his frame: the U.S. is at war all over the world, head-on war with Iran is a bad idea, and enough is enough. 

In his piece, Sanders — much like Warren in her article and American University speech last year — outlines the disappointment and frustration that the post-9/11 efforts of millions of Americans have not ended global terrorism. He declares these “forever wars” should end. That’s all fair and all too familiar. Here’s a sample: “We need a foreign policy that focuses on core U.S. interests, clarifies our commitment to democratic values both at home and abroad, and privileges diplomacy and working collectively with allies to address shared security concerns.”

I’m not sure what any of that means. I think it is code for being tougher on the Saudis, shifting attention to the State Department away from military responses, and being a better ally instead of a chest-thumping America First-er like Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

“Withdrawing from Afghanistan is something we must do,” Sanders also says. But his stated reason for doing so is that U.S. troops have been there for too long. Not because the mission is accomplished. Not because any peace has been won or earned. And, perhaps most importantly, not because the United States would be safer for that withdrawal. Shouldn’t that be the No. 1 reason for any decision to deploy or redeploy American armed forces: Will it make us safer? Isn’t that the top job of the commander in chief: to ensure the safety of the nation? Sanders may believe so, but he doesn’t say why or how. 

Sanders does offer one solution: a “reinvestment” in diplomacy and development aid, those crucial, neglected non-defense tools of American power. But it’s disheartening to hear Sanders in his very next sentence blame Trump for that imbalance. 

When I hear calls for increasing funding to the State Department and USAID, I remind folks why they should remain extremely skeptical. Despite the trope that Democrats boost such funding after Republicans cut it, it didn’t happen under President Barack Obama. At one point, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a lifelong Republican, was begging for more soft power funding for other agencies to help with the counterinsurgency mission’s non-military goals. He was even offering to call up reserves and dress them in plainclothes to help dig wells, lay crops, build schools. It wasn’t to be. And Gates was dealing with Democrats in the White House, House, and Senate and Hillary Clinton at State. 

Sanders and his peers are on to something. Americans want less war. And soft-power funding helped win the Cold War. But it remains woefully short, and forever will until a president puts forth a bold funding boost with a genuine plan to recruit, staff, organize around new bold policies to use that money wisely — and a Congress becomes eager to approve and oversee it. But in today’s political climate, the American public is not clamoring for such a funding increase for  people who live outside American borders, even it is ultimately designed to help Americans. There is no love for Obama’s “long game.” At this early stage in the 2020 campaign cycle, most candidates are squarely focused on domestic issues, outside of a few headline-making events like this latest Iran faceoff. Some advisors undoubtedly would argue that’s exactly what their candidates should be doing. But if presidential candidates shy from describing a clear path to restore American leadership abroad, why should the people come to want it? 

Let’s get wonky for a moment. Some in the security community would no doubt agree with Sanders’ call for a new approach to global security. “As an organizing framework, the global war on terror has been a disaster for our country,” he wrote. “Orienting U.S. national-security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth. We responded to terrorists by giving them exactly what they wanted.” 

We’ve heard similar criticisms before, but Sanders contemporizes it a bit. He says that that the 18-year focus on “Muslim terrorists” (upheld by successive administrations of both parties) has helped create and stoke the viscious xenophobic fear that is rising in America today. “There is a straight line from the decision to reorient U.S. national-security strategy around terrorism after 9/11 to placing migrant children in cages on our southern border,” he writes. In other words, he is implying, we are all to blame for getting to this point. It’s a call for a collective awareness and fundamental change. 

There is hope, he offers. This year, Congress voted to end U.S. participation in the Yemen conflict. That vote, and public support for it, likely has more to do with Jamal Kashoggi’s murder and Trump’s ho-hum reaction to it than it does with the security threat and Saudi execution of the Yemen mission. But Congress does generally appear more motivated to take back its authority over executive actions toward war. Other candidates — Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, and Warren — also raise the war powers issue as a rallying cry. They want greater control over America’s “forever wars,” even if they don’t know what that looks like yet. But it will require deeper examination, conversation, choices and solutions than these speeches and Foreign Affairs pieces are offering. 

What’s yet to be seen is whether, in 2020, the occupant of the Oval Office, Congress, and American voters want to the United States to pull out of some conflicts or all of them. The first option would require something Sanders and most every other candidate has yet to offer: details and hard decisions. If they want to stop Tehran from flooding yet another Middle Eastern country with anti-American money, missiles, and minds, then where is that worth fighting for? Why are they mostly silent on Somalia, where Americans are fighting what appears to be yet another endless stream of militants. What do they think of U.S. troops and intelligence forces and private military contractors deployed by the thousands in places like Libya? Or Niger? What about Syria? Would they continue the Trump drawdown of troops there, or is there value in turning that ship around and reinvesting with military and non-military money and leadership in the Syrian Democratic Forces and the democracy movement being fostered by Kurdish women? Would they, as president, confront Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad and take real leadership of an international solution for Syria’s fate? What about Afghanistan? Pulling out completely won’t end that war or terrorism in that country, but it will give every one of the roughly 20 identified terrorist groups there freer reign, and despite the protests of so many disenchanted veterans of that war it would be yet another American abandonment of a promise made by this nation to another, many senior military officials privately and publicly argue. 

None of these are easy questions. The U.S. can’t fight every conflict. And with Russia and China looming in every speech about the “great power competition” framework concocted by the Trump administration, there are choices to be made. 

Bob Gates was the last U.S. defense secretary to warn that the U.S. government and its military cannot be asked to be ready for every threat. Choices must be made. He tended to chose the threats staring Washington right in the face. That’s why at the time he ordered rush delivery of MRAP vehicles when soldiers and Marines were being blown up by roadside bombs, and why he cancelled the F-22, because he said that air-to-air stealth dogfighting with China was too far-fetched a scenario to justify the cost. It still is. But terrorism remains. If Sanders were commander in chief, he too will have choices to make. Reframing American security policy into something more effective is always welcome. Many Americans and foreign policy leaders are also tired of the military-first tendencies of the past 18 years. Some argue the success of the global war on terrorism is it’s own enemy, and that the fact that the U.S. hasn’t had a spectacular terrorist attack by foreign agents has given Americans a false sense of security — especially among the post-9/11 generation. Maybe so, maybe not. What’s clear is that when war appears in the national conversation, it’s seems much more often in the context of pulling out than leaning in. Sanders and his rivals may not want to say how, just yet, but if any of them manage to win out, a new approach may be coming. 

“We have to view the terrorism threat through the proper scope, rather than allowing it to dominate our view of the world,” he writes. “The time has come to envision a new form of American engagement: one in which the United States leads not in war-making but in bringing people together to find shared solutions to our shared concerns. American power should be measured not by our ability to blow things up, but by our ability to build on our common humanity, harnessing our technology and enormous wealth to create a better life for all people.”

Nobody disagrees with that. But before the next candidate uses “forever wars” as a sound bite for actual plans, here’s another quote to think about: “It’s never a good easy clean choice in foreign policy.” That’s from Chuck Hagel, another of Obama’s defense secretaries. And a Republican.