Foreign Affairs writers all learn the same thing from recent wars—unfortunately, it’s how to fight future wars

The current issue of Foreign Affairs exemplifies one of the most common of all propaganda devices: selection of possibilities. It’s a simple yet powerful tool for fooling people: you say you’re going to get experts to discuss an issue, but all the experts either agree or agree with some highly nuanced differences. The audience gets the idea that the discussion has covered the waterfront, when it fact it has only analyzed one narrow possibility.

Foreign Affairs is the highfalutin quarterly journal in which political science professors, think tank gurus, government officials and other hired hands of the ruling political elite argue foreign policy strategy. The first part of the current issue focuses on what we as a nation can learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as far as military and foreign policy goes. Funny thing is, though, all we learn from the distinguished panel of six foreign policy experts is how to fight wars more effectively or efficiently in the 21st century. The broader questions of whether we should be fighting wars is never asked, because the viewpoint of all the panelists is interventionist, by which I mean they all want to intervene in the affairs of other countries through the use of military force.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations starts things off with a statement of befuddled frustration: “If only a nation as powerful and vulnerable as the United States had the option of defining exactly what wars it wages. Reality, alas, seldom cooperates.” To Boot, not being able to define the war means one thing only: being forced to fight non-traditional armies, such as al Qaeda or IS. Boot gives us a number of tips for waging these wars, all learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, such as: be prepared to occupy the country after we win; don’t assume the best case scenario; do better strategic thinking; do a better job of managing mercenaries; and train troops for more than just short conventional operations. At no time does Boot question the idea that we will have to fight these wars. He assumes we will and will do so with mercenaries. He just wants us to do a better job of it.

Richard Betts, director of a foreign policy institute at Columbia University, advocates that the United States fights fewer wars but do “more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces…” Betts also wants us to stop “fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries” and focus military planning on fighting wars against great powers. Betts says that we are living in an era of permanent war, but evidently wants us to focus our militarism on China and Russia.  It’s not so much that Betts thinks the so-called small wars in Iraq and elsewhere have been worthless but that they have not prepared us for “bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.” What that means, by the way, are wars in which not thousands but hundreds of thousands of Americans die. By the way, it’s rare when the loser of a war does not descend into the kind of chaos Betts wants us to avoid in our opposition.

Rick Brennan, a political scientist at the private think tank, RAND Corporation, reviews in detail the events that led to and followed the departure of U.S. troops (but not U.S. mercenaries) from Iraq at the end of 2011. His article lists the lessons we should learn from what he sees as the bungling of the exit from Iraq. It was inevitable that such an article would appear from the day that the troops hit the ground in 2003. Chaos, partisanship, terrorism and revolt were going to be the fate of Iraq no matter when we cleared out our troops, be it 2011 or 2121. That’s what happens when a country cobbled together by outside forces loses its strong man. It happened in Yugoslavia. It’s happening in Syria. And the United States made it happen in Iraq. It’s an endgame predictable to anyone in the reality-based community, which unfortunately never included those who started the war. I think it took a lot of guts on Obama’s part to stick to his pledge to get the troops out of Iraq, even though he knew what would likely ensure. He didn’t pass the buck down the road so that the next president—or the one after that—would be left holding the bag when Iraq disintegrated after U.S. forces left.

What is most interesting about Brennan’s article, though, is that he never mentions learning the lesson not to invade. No, his teachable moment from the exit from Iraq only concerns exiting dirty little wars that destabilize countries, thus assuming we’ll be fighting more of them.

An article by Daniel Byman of Georgetown and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institute next warns us not to overreact to the threat of Islamic extremists living in western countries immigrating to fight for IS. After telling us why the threat is overblown, the good professors propose some changes to make it harder for would-be IS fighters to leave their respective motherlands. It seems like a small-bore article for a special segment dedicated to the big issue of learning from past wars. When we think of the number of innocent civilians killed, injured or displaced in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the problem of a couple of fanatics making their way into the IS ranks seems trivial.

Finally Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, reviews three books about the bungling by all sides of the Afghanistan war. At the end of the article, Tomsen expresses a fear that, once all U.S. troops vacate Afghanistan, the country will descend into a full-scale civil war. Of course it will, just like Iraq has. That’s what happens when you break something and try to put it together with spit and string. It falls apart as soon as you set it down.

None of these distinguished scholars considers for even one paragraph an alternative to the military imperialism that we have called our foreign policy for decades now. They all take it for granted that we are going to get into wars. They are just trying to make sure that we’re fighting the right wars and that we win them quickly and with a minimum of hassle. No one ever considers that maybe we shouldn’t be fighting any wars. Certainly the last several we have fought have had no strategic value to us—unless we somehow improve our safety and access to raw materials by throwing one of the major oil producers into permanent disarray. These esteemed gentleman all take it for granted that we will need to fight wars to protect our political and economic interests in the future and that these wars—or at least most of them—are just and necessary.

Readers can come away from the pages of Foreign Affairs thinking that they have learned every imaginable lesson they can from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflagrations. But in fact, readers will learn nothing but the ways of military imperialism.

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