The 2003 invasion of Iraq was popular. Polling from that spring shows 7 in 10 Americans backed the war, calling the choice to use military force against the government of Saddam Hussein the “right decision.” Enthusiasm for the intervention rapidly declined as it became evident that there was no trove of weapons of mass destruction and that the invasion had not been essential to American security. What was supposed to be a quick strike instead became a long and costly misadventure in occupation, policing and nation-building.
Still, for years, public approval of the invasion hovered close to 50%. Not anymore. New survey results from Pew Research Center suggest that fewer than one-third of American adults now believe the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria were worth fighting — and, crucially, veterans agree.
The calculation that the wars cost the United States more than any benefits derived is correct. American taxpayers have spent trillions already on the conflicts, and we are on the hook for trillions more. That money has to come from somewhere, and someone will have to pay it back. Our grandchildren are looking like the most likely candidates.
The sheer size of this year’s military spending bill — which cleared the House at a near-record high of $733 billion, yet faces a presidential veto for being too small — is a vivid reminder of this literal cost. To be sure, the bulk of that appropriation will not go to war spending directly, but tens of billions will. Washington’s grand strategy of prioritizing global abstractions instead of U.S. security and prosperity will cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion next year.
Other costs of our Middle East military involvement are more difficult to measure, but nevertheless consequential. One is the strategic distraction of the U.S. military as it has been pressed into service and spread ever thinner as to help further a range of foreign policy objectives. Washington has proved either unwilling or unable to distinguish, as military historian and retired Col. Andrew Bacevich has phrased it, between “what the U.S. military can do, what it cannot do, what it need not do, and what it should not do.”
The United States boasts the most powerful military in the world by a long shot, but it does not have infinite resources or capabilities. Our armed forces cannot do everything, and Washington should not make them try. The time has long since come to stop sending American troops hither and yon to solve conflicts we so evidently do not understand and whose outcomes, whatever it may be, will never pose an existential threat to our country.
That misapplication of U.S. military might — particularly insofar as it rides roughshod over long-standing cultural and religious concerns and contributes to civilian death, injury and displacement — often imposes additional costs in the form of unintended consequences.
U.S. interventions have time and again unwittingly fostered anti-American sentiment as terrorist propagandists prey on ignorance and use American missteps to radicalize ordinary people. The suffering our policy brings to foreign populations, however inadvertent, foments anger, chaos and terrorism that further intervention is powerless to quell.
So why are we asking American troops to quell it? The death of yet another American soldier in Afghanistan this month brings that question into razor-sharp relief. Why is Washington sending U.S. forces to die for an impossible and unnecessary task? How exactly will “stability” come to Afghanistan —or Iraq, or Syria, or any of our other half-dozen wars — with another 10 years of U.S. investment?
Our foreign policy going forward should be informed by what this recent poll shows most Americans have already realized: The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria weren’t worth it. They cost us dearly in every respect: indebted future generations, upended strategic priorities, unintentionally undermined U.S. security, inflicted suffering on foreign innocents, and spent the lives of U.S. troops in pursuit of ill-considered and unachievable aims.
Washington didn’t make the right decision in Iraq, as most Americans now know. But we can make the right decision with wars like Iraq now by bringing our troops home from the Middle East and reorienting our foreign policy toward restraint and peace. That would be a worthwhile choice.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has appeared in numerous outlets.