For almost 17 years, the United States has waged a “war on terror” that, by any rational measure, has backfired catastrophically. There is more terrorist activity today than there was when we invaded Afghanistan in 2001. There are more ungoverned areas and failed states creating the vacuums in which violence thrives. And there is now a generation of people for whom “America” is nothing but the enemy dropping bombs on their homes and propping up their corrupt “ruling” governments.
With such a track record of failure, it’s worth asking: Why has so little changed? Why does our nation keep trying to kill its way to peace? Why do we continue to send American men and women to die in villages that most Americans have never heard of? Why do we spend trillions of dollars paying for these wars? Why do they continue under progressive internationalists like Barack Obama as well as “America First” disrupters like Donald Trump? And why are they backed by legislators spanning the spectrum from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that policy-makers are following the will of the people. Surely, the representatives, senators, and presidents who have voted for, funded, and directed this era of US military intervention must be listening to their constituents. Even in our broken, hyperpartisan political system, there must be some voter base driving the relentless pursuit of these failed policies.
Yet electoral results and public-opinion polling make it clear that this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The American public is tired of the failures of our militarized foreign policy, eager to support candidates promising a new path, and supportive of dramatic shifts in our national-security priorities.
Let’s start with the elections. During the last three presidential campaigns, Americans turned to the candidate promising a less interventionist foreign policy. In fact, research that looked into the 2016 election suggested that voter disaffection with our wars in the Middle East was a significant factor in Trump’s victory. Communities that bore the brunt of US combat deaths since 9/11 were more likely to support Trump, who, despite his militaristic turn as president, painted himself as fed up with our foreign interventions. Even after controlling for other factors, the data showed that the casualties from our endless wars helped put Trump in the Oval Office.
And it’s not just the top of the ticket. Earlier this year, my team at Win Without War took a comprehensive look at what happened to 528 members of Congress who voted for or against the Iraq War. In short, those who tried to stop the war are twice as likely to be in Congress as their pro-war colleagues. Up and down the ballot, voters have rewarded restraint and punished hawkishness.