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.