WASHINGTON — Nearly two decades after the fall of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, American troops continue to wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan and lesser-known corners of the globe. President Trump almost opened another front last month when he approved the killing of Iran’s most powerful general.
“We took one of the world’s deadliest terrorists off the battlefield for good,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, justifying the drone strike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
In other words, in the “war on terror,” the Iranian leader was fair game.
Last week, Democrats and some Republicans in the House voted to repeal a war authorization that has helped justify all manner of American military action abroad. It was a challenge not only to President Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran, but also to the thinking in Washington that has sustained the war-fighting since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
For more than 18 years, the war on terrorism — the “forever war” or “endless war,” as many call it — has been used as the basis for an ever-expanding range of military actions: an invasion of Iraq that, by one count, has left nearly 300,000 dead; airstrikes in Afghanistan that have sometimes unintentionally killed scores at wedding parties as well as Qaeda leaders; and now the Suleimani drone strike. Mr. Trump said the general, who had helped arm anti-American militias in the Iraq war, had been plotting new “imminent and sinister attacks.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump is expected to articulate the direction of American foreign policy in his State of the Union address. Weeks after the United States and Iran nearly went to war, many Americans still want to know not just whether an attack was really “imminent,” the question that consumed Washington. They are asking whether the United States should continue fighting these wars at all, when the presence and actions of American troops ignite hostility and can sometimes heighten risks as much as limit them, critics say.
The sheer length of the conflicts has clarified for many Americans a stark moral question: whether any of the wars are still justified given the tolls — psychological, physical and spiritual — they have exacted on the United States and many other nations.
The concerns have come from both ends of the political spectrum. In condemning the killing of General Suleimani, Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox News host, said the situation created by the Iraq war was “immoral” and that “we should leave, immediately.” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, said in a televised debate in January, “We should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
“Our keeping combat troops there is not helping,” she said of the Middle East.
That most politicians in Washington last month instead debated “imminence” reveals the enduring consensus over foreign policy that justifies the wars. The premise is that aggressive intervention abroad, forward deployments and fighting perceived enemies “over there” keep the United States safe. And besides protecting Americans, so it goes, these policies are necessary for the United States to carry out its mission as a shield against evil in the world.
In explaining last month why the United States would not discuss a troop withdrawal from Iraq — as demanded by Iraqi leaders furious over the drone strike on their soil — the State Department turned to that rationale, saying, “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” And in a recent speech on Iran policy, Mr. Pompeo invoked American exceptionalism: “America is a truly special place.”
But more Americans now believe that military adventurism after the Sept. 11 attacks has created greater dangers to the nation.
In a USA Today/Ipsos poll, 52 percent of respondents said the killing of General Suleimani had made the United States less safe. Online searches for “World War III” and “draft” surged in the days afterward. American citizens around the world received emails from embassies warning them of greater risks.
“The escalation over the past month is likely not over, especially now that we’ve crossed the line from proxy conflict to a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at RAND Corporation, a research group. “We’re in a vicious cycle where escalation leads to more force presence, but more force presence may make the potential for escalation higher.”
Decades earlier, the Vietnam War spiraled into an expansive conflict with alarming ease, and inflamed furious debate across American society. As the war intensified in the late 1960s and ’70s, American officials carpet bombed Laos and Cambodia and tortured and assassinated Vietcong leaders in the name of defeating Communism. But, because of the draft, that war generated a moral debate in the United States that is absent today. In a searing 1967 speech on Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war,” because Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had their base there, protected by the Taliban. But 18 years after the United States toppled the Taliban, 13,000 troops remain, propping up an embattled Afghan government. More than 2,400 American service members and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died, in a war costing the United States at least $2 trillion.
In September, Mr. Trump called off peace talks with the Taliban, dimming hopes of a withdrawal, though negotiations have since restarted.
Despite his denunciations of endless wars, Mr. Trump’s policies and actions have gone in the opposite direction. In December, he ordered 4,500 troops to the Middle East, adding to the 50,000 already there. In the last two years, the American military dropped bombs and missiles on Afghanistan at a record pace. In April, Mr. Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution to end American military involvement in Yemen’s devastating civil war.
Perhaps most significant, Mr. Trump withdrew in 2018 from a landmark nuclear containment deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions, setting off the chain of events that led to the killing of General Suleimani and a retaliatory missile strike by Iran that caused traumatic brain injuries to at least 64 American service members.
“The policies aren’t changing; in some ways, they’re getting worse,” said Stephen Wertheim, a historian and the co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new research group in Washington financed by prominent billionaires — George Soros, a liberal, and Charles Koch, a conservative — who advocate American military restraint.
In some corners, though, there has been pushback against the notion that a lower troop presence leads to greater security. Proponents of the forever war point to President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
But that ignores a whole set of circumstances, including the formal withdrawal agreement Mr. Bush had previously reached with the Iraqi government because the Iraqis wanted the Americans out, and the role of the Syrian civil war in creating the Islamic State. Most important, it ignores the lack of political will among American citizens for continuing the war.
Some lawmakers are trying to revoke the war authorizations of 2001 and 2002 — the first used for fighting Sept. 11-related terrorism and the second for invading Iraq — and looking for other ways to constrain Mr. Trump’s ability to expand the wars. In January, senators in the Republican-led chamber sponsoring legislation to limit military action against Iran said they had enough votes to pass the bill, the War Powers Resolution. The Democratic-led House passed a similar measure last month.
“I think the Suleimani killing and the escalation with Iran have clarified the stakes for some people who hadn’t been paying attention to the ongoing wars,” Mr. Wertheim said. “We very nearly got into another major war in the Middle East that’s not warranted by U.S. interests, and we still might.”
Even some hawkish foreign policy officials have begun to advocate a drawdown in the Middle East and Central Asia because of what they call the opportunity costs to America’s mission.
“One of the very odd pathologies of Washington and the defense establishment is this enthrallment with the Middle East, which just isn’t that important,” said Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official in the Trump administration. “America has become energy independent. And we’re not very good at achieving our preferred outcomes in the Middle East.”
Mr. Colby was the main author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which recommended turning America’s war-fighting focus to the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.