Our 20-year war in Afghanistan had barely ended and the foreign policy press was rife with articles banging the drums about the wars to come in East Asia. The casus belli – the instigating factors for the war with China that apparently lies inevitably in our future – include our longstanding commitment to defend Taiwan, the critical role of the United States in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and ultimately, the balance of power in global economic and political leadership.
However, these issues have been overshadowed by many problems at home. With inflation and Covid-19 surging, and Democrats scrambling as the 2022 midterm elections lie less than a year away, the most consequential act of Joe Biden’s presidency – ending the war in Afghanistan – has already faded from public view. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoyed broad public support when George W. Bush launched the global war on terror in the wake of 9/11, public attitudes toward both wars turned south long ago.
It is remarkable how much has changed over the ensuing decades. Islamic terrorism, the pretext for both wars and the fulcrum of national politics from 9/11 to the 2008 financial collapse, is now barely more than a Lauren Boebert laugh line. A decade into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global war on terror had already lapsed from being a serious issue of public engagement to just another political issue over which the political parties could bludgeon each other. By the time we reached our second decade of wars in west Asia, three-quarters of Americans across the political spectrum wanted out of Afghanistan and approved of Biden’s determination to pull out.
Donald Trump’s stance as an anti-war candidate in 2016 marked a pivotal shift in the political landscape. His instinctive sense of the public zeitgeist was on full display when he campaigned against George W. Bush’s “forever wars.” Indeed, it was the singular marker that set Trump apart from the Republican Party establishment, and that turned Bush-era neoconservatives into the base of anti-Trump Republicanism. Yet, despite four years as Commander-in-Chief, Trump proved incapable of forcing a withdrawal from Afghanistan on his recalcitrant generals – a source of frustration that was evident in his last-ditch effort to force a troop withdrawal during his waning days in office.
The simple truth, as noted by the conservative CATO Institute, is that “President Joe Biden did what his three predecessors could or would not: halt a seemingly endless war.” But he did more than that. In his speech the day after our final exit from Kabul, Biden turned back the clock on a quarter-century of U.S. foreign policy, asserting that the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan marked the end of an era of American militarism.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” Biden said. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan – getting the terrorists to stop the attacks – morph into a counterinsurgency, nation-building – trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan.”
But Biden did not leave it there. While the Biden Doctrine argued for the disengagement of ground troops, the President went on to suggest that “over-the-horizon” operations will become the backbone of our global anti-terrorism strategy. Over-the-horizon operations – by definition those undertaken from outside national borders – rely on a variety of satellite, drone, and other surveillance systems to identify and attack terrorists or other targets. While the strategy comports with the clear antipathy of the American electorate to have military forces engaged in conflicts across the globe, it arguably represents an escalation of U.S. engagement, from a moral standpoint if not a military one.
War is not what it used to be, Yale historian Samuel Moyn argues in his new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, published earlier this year. “The American way of war,” he observes, “is more and more defined by a near-complete immunity from harm for one side and unprecedented care when it comes to killing people on the other.” But in its migration away from notions of “total war” – that once saw death and destruction as tools to achieve a quick and decisive end to
hostilities – the advent of “humane war” in Moyn’s view, has resulted in “America’s military operations [becoming] more expansive in scope and perpetual in time by virtue of these very facts.”
The emergence of special forces as the tip of the American spear reflects the evolution that Moyn describes; yet it also reflects the quandary that we may well face going forward. Moyn opens his book with a vignette, contrasting a wedding on a beautiful day in New Canaan, Connecticut with a similar wedding day in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. He describes the impact of drone warfare – central to the over-the-horizon operations Joe Biden touted – on the psyche of a population knowing that at any moment surveillance drones may be flying overhead, and the prospect that a missile strike could ensue at any moment if a drone operator in a far-off bunker mistakes a peaceful gathering for a terrorist threat. It was a scene captured in the opening scene of Season 4 of the fictionalized Showtime series Homeland and mirrored in the closing moments of our departure from Kabul, when a drone strike killed ten civilians.
Reporting in The New York Times suggests that the inadvertent targeting of civilians has become an inevitable consequence of drone operations. One recent article described a strike in Syria in 2019 that killed 70 civilians who were mistakenly targeted by a surveillance drone operator. That attack took even the U.S. command forces on the ground by surprise and led an Air Force intelligence officer and Air Force lawyer to report their concern that the mistaken targeting of civilians by the special forces unit may have constituted a war crime.
This is a uniquely American problem. No other nation’s military has been granted – or has presumed itself granted – the latitude to fly surveillance drones over other nations’ sovereign territory and attack targets as drone operators in a far-off bunker might see fit.
Since the waning days of World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson committed U.S. troops to the European war in order to “make the world safe for democracy,” democracy has been our raison d’être in the world. Our post-World War II role as the global policeman, for all its flaws, was legitimized by our role in building the architecture of the democratic institutions that engendered the rise of democratic governance across the globe.
It is that role as the global defender of democratic values that lends legitimacy to the global footprint of our military and the freedom of action that it enjoys. We have military bases in 80 countries and territories, and our special forces are reportedly active in nearly twice as many.
The years since the 2008 global financial collapse, however, have seen a backsliding away from liberal democracy. Anti-democratic populists have emerged in nations across the world, railing against globalist elites and the post-World War II order the United States did so much to build. But it is the full flowering of anti-democratic populism in the United States that looms to transform global politics. In 2016, The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from “Full Democracy” to “Flawed Democracy” in its Democracy Index. The downgrade reflected the “erosion of trust in government and elected officials” marked by Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and ensuing election, which was then exacerbated in 2020 by his unwillingness to accept the results of the election and the steadily growing transformation of the Republican Party into an avowedly illiberal political movement.
While our increased reliance on special forces and drone operations may assuage a skeptical public, our deteriorating commitment to democracy at home has ominous implications for the freedom we presume our forces should enjoy to pursue our enemies abroad. Our expansive military operations across the globe are ultimately justified by our long-standing moral authority as the “leader of the free world.” Should we lose that moral authority, we risk becoming just another bully on the world stage.
As Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine and China increases its threatening stance toward Taiwan, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are well aware of two salient factors that may fundamentally alter the balance of power in the world and give them the latitude they have long sought to assert their own interests on the ground. The American public has grown weary and distrusting of wars that our leaders thrust upon us. But perhaps of equal significance is the emerging possibility that the moral justification of our leadership in the world may be waning as a dire
ct product of the deterioration of our commitment to democracy at home.
“Today, the transformation of the democratic republic into an autocracy has advanced. By 2024, it might be irreversible. If this does indeed happen, it will change almost everything in the world… The U.S. is the sole democratic superpower. Its ongoing political transformation has deep implications for liberal democracies everywhere…In 2016, one could ignore these dangers. Today, one must be blind to do so.”
Or to put it succinctly: What happens when we wake up to find that we are no longer the moral leader of the world we have long imagined ourselves to be?