Just weeks before scuttling the so-called Iran nuclear deal and unveiling plans to get tough with the Islamic Republic, President Trump tallied up the cumulative financial costs of the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terrorism. He put the tab at $7 trillion. “Seven trillion dollars over a 17-year period,” Trump lamented, and “we have nothing—nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing.”
As a summary assessment of US policy since 9/11, this certainly represents a remarkable admission. If the sitting commander in chief thinks that US military exertions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere have achieved “nothing except death and destruction,” then surely the time must be ripe to undertake a fundamental reassessment of US national-security policy in those parts of the Islamic world.
Imagine Herbert Hoover in 1930 taking to the radio to announce: “Fellow citizens, my plans for ending the Depression just aren’t working. We’ve got a real mess on our hands.” Or Jimmy Carter conceding on national television in 1980: “This Iran hostage crisis has me completely buffaloed.” In either case, the disclosure would have prompted a lively discussion of policy alternatives.
Not so in the present instance, however. Instead, we get pedantic fact-checking. Writing in The Washington Post, Amanda Erickson derided Trump’s $7 trillion figure as “flat wrong.” The true number, she insisted, is closer to $1.8 trillion, or maybe $3.6 trillion, or $4–6 trillion, tops. But not the $7 trillion figure repeatedly cited by our dissembling and/or clueless president. Gotcha again, Trump!
I submit that Erickson is missing the larger truth that our president, no doubt going off script, has somehow managed to divine. She is hardly alone in that regard. Agenda-setting outlets like the Post and The New York Times, along with political elites more generally, today manifest a studied indifference to endless war, not all that dissimilar from the National Rifle Association’s indifference to mass shootings.
The NRA adheres to a settled interpretation of the Second Amendment and will not budge from its terms, no matter how much blood gets spilled. Members of the Washington national-security apparatus—including anyone angling for a job involving regular visits to the Oval Office—likewise have arrived at a settled interpretation on how to deal with the afflictions besetting much of the Greater Middle East. And they won’t budge from its terms no matter how much blood gets spilled. As a result, the contours of basic policy evade critical examination, and American wars continue as if on autopilot.
The circumstances permitting this mindless undertaking to persist are so well-known that they hardly bear repeating. They include a brain-dead policy elite; a military system that insulates the vast majority of Americans from sacrifice; a cynical decision to saddle future generations with the responsibility to pay for today’s wars while the present generation enjoys tax cuts; congressional abdication of its constitutionally assigned war powers, compounded by more than a few members of the House and Senate being deeply in hock to the military-industrial complex; the hiring of what Tom Engelhardt has dubbed “warrior corporations”—profit-minded contractors, proxies, and mercenaries—effectively hiding the magnitude of war from American view; the absorption of available political energy by eminently worthy causes—the anti-Trump resistance and #MeToo offer examples—that inadvertently consign war to the margins; and finally, divisions within the feeble anti-war camp, one wing leaning left, the other leaning right, with neither willing to make common cause on matters where their views coincide.
Of course, underlying these is the enduring conceit, regularly celebrated in Washington, that Providence summons the United States to exercise global leadership now and forever, with that leadership expressed primarily through threatened or real military action. All of these together create a layered and interlocking defense that insulates the militarized status quo from challenge.
Even so, the profound American disregard for actual policy outcomes remains something of a puzzle. After all, at some level we see ourselves as a pragmatic people, preferring what works to what doesn’t. Yet as far as our wars are concerned, the gap between declared intentions and the results achieved continues to grow from one year to the next, while political elites, for the most part, pretend not to notice. Let Afghanistan, a conflict now promising to extend into eternity, serve as the prosecution’s exhibit number one.
Here, I submit, part of the problem lies with Trump himself, widely viewed by members of the intelligentsia as a noxious charlatan. For this very reason, when the president, however inadvertently, utters a self-evident truth—that our post-9/11 wars cost a lot and aren’t working—his endorsement of that truth drains it of significance. It’s akin to an involuntary reflex: If Trump says our wars have achieved nothing, then surely they must have done some good, right?
Yet, however ironically, Trump’s own ascent to the presidency might itself offer a clue about how to extricate ourselves from these “forever wars.” Trump’s election testifies to the number of our fellow citizens who are mightily pissed off and who have lost confidence in Washington’s ability to govern in ways that address the needs of ordinary Americans.
On that score, we should view the election of 2016 as a plebiscite of sorts. As a candidate, Hillary Clinton wanted to discuss policy. In her wonkish way, she offered a plan for just about everything. Trump focused on a single question: Is the country headed in the right direction or not? Answer yes or no.
Almost 63 million Americans voted no. The number increases if we include those who supported the Libertarian or—like me—the Green Party candidate. The tally increases further still if we add the more than 90 million eligible voters who simply stayed home. Together, these voters and nonvoters handed Trump a majority in the Electoral College, and that, as the saying goes, was all she wrote. The rest—James Comey, hacked e-mails, Russian collusion, whatever—is just commentary.
Allow me to suggest that the final vote count signified something much more than a humiliating defeat for Hillary Clinton. It represents a decisive repudiation of both major parties—not only a Republican establishment that would have preferred just about anyone to Trump, but also a sclerotic Democratic establishment unable to identify a candidate or devise a message capable of defeating an adversary spectacularly ill-suited for the office that he was seeking.
Trump did not earn the votes of the 63 million who cast their ballot for him. Instead, the Republican and Democratic establishments had earned the contempt of the electorate several times over, not least by their blind perpetuation of war, year after year, without even the pretense of accountability. The final outcome of the election was a great “fuck you” directed at the individuals and institutions that represent these party establishments in the eyes of the larger public.
Yet allow me to suggest that all these disenchanted millions are essential to solving a problem that they have thus far mostly helped to create. To write them off as cretins or bigots or crypto-fascists is to make a huge mistake (even if Trumplandia offers sanctuary to more than a few of each). For anyone disturbed by the militaristic trajectory of US policy, the political challenge of the moment is to harness the energy of those 63 million pissed-off Americans—even a fraction of them would suffice—and thereby forge a broad coalition favoring a less bellicose approach to policy.
Education will necessarily precede mobilization, inviting the public to consider possibilities that in Washington remain off-limits even for discussion: that the national security of the United States may not require the stationing of US troops in more than 170 countries around the world, a massive military budget set to exceed $700 billion in the next fiscal year, or the continuous dropping of ordnance on targets in distant lands of marginal or nonexistent relevance to our own well-being.
American history offers assurances that this model of educating, and then mobilizing, is indeed feasible. Nineteenth-century abolitionists campaigned to make slavery morally untenable—and prevailed. Early 20th-century Progressives like Jane Addams and Samuel Gompers made it impossible to ignore the plight of the American working class. In the 1920s, “wets” robbed Prohibition of its legitimacy and forced its eventual repeal. None of this happened overnight, but in each instance intelligently crafted and focused agitation brought Americans (not all, but enough) to the realization that slavery is indeed immoral, that exploiting workers is unjust, and that amending the Constitution to outlaw liquor is plainly stupid.
What we require today is intelligently crafted and focused agitation that will bring patriotic Americans—not excluding Trump voters—to the realization that our present-day penchant for war is morally dubious, deeply unfair in its imposition of sacrifice, and just plain stupid. Of course, the issue goes beyond war to encompass other aspects of American life that are likewise immoral, unfair, and stupid. The problem, in short, has multiple dimensions.
Where can we turn for guidance? In 1967, while decrying “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” Martin Luther King Jr. articulated themes that can serve us well today (even if some might add a couple of additional isms). “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” Dr. King insisted. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” he continued, we’re in big trouble. So we are today, and the fault is by no means exclusively Trump’s.
The people who voted for Trump are not the enemy; they are wayward members of a flock that believes itself to have been roundly abused and neglected. Who will step forth to serve as their shepherd and invite them to return to the fold?