Now we know, thanks to the “Afghanistan Papers” published in The Washington Post this past week, that U.S. policymakers doubted almost from the start that the two-decade-long Afghanistan war could ever succeed. Officials didn’t know who the enemy was and had little sense of what an achievable “victory” might look like. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” said Douglas Lute, the Army three-star general who oversaw the conflict from the White House during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
And yet the war ground on, as if on autopilot. Obama inherited a conflict of which Bush had grown weary, and victory drew no closer after Obama’s troop “surge” than when Bush pursued a small-footprint conflict. But while the Pentagon Papers, published in 1971 during the Vietnam War, led a generation to appreciate the perils of warmaking, a new generation may squander this opportunity to set things right. There is a reason the quagmire in Afghanistan, despite costing thousands of lives and $2 trillion, has failed to shock Americans into action: The United States for decades has made peace look unimaginable or unobtainable. We have normalized war.
President Trump sometimes disrupts the pattern by vowing to put an end to America’s “endless wars.” But he has extended and escalated them at every turn, offering nakedly punitive and exploitative rationales. In September, on the cusp of a peace deal with the Taliban, he discarded an agreement negotiated by his administration and pummeled Afghanistan harder than ever (now he’s back to wanting to talk). In Syria, his promised military withdrawal has morphed into a grotesque redeployment to “secure” the country’s oil.
It is clearer than ever that the problem of American military intervention goes well beyond the proclivities of the current president, or the previous one, or the next. The United States has slowly slid away from any plausible claim of standing for peace in the world. The ideal of peace was one that America long promoted, enshrining it in law and institutions, and the end of the Cold War offered an unparalleled opportunity to advance peace. But U.S. leaders from both parties chose another path. War — from drone strikes and Special Operations raids to protracted occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan — has come to seem inevitable and eternal, in practice and even in aspiration.
Given World War II, Korea, Vietnam and many smaller conflicts throughout the Western Hemisphere, no one has ever mistaken the United States for Switzerland. Still, the pursuit of peace is an authentic American tradition that has shaped U.S. conduct and the international order. At its founding, the United States resolved to steer clear of the system of war in Europe and build a “new world” free of violent rivalry, as Alexander Hamilton put it.
Indeed, Americans shrank from playing a fully global role until 1941 in part because they saw themselves as emissaries of peace (even as the United States conquered Native American land, policed its hemisphere and took Pacific colonies). U.S. leaders sought either to remake international politics along peaceful lines — as Woodrow Wilson proposed after World War I — or to avoid getting entangled in the squabbles of a fallen world. And when America embraced global leadership after World War II, it felt compelled to establish the United Nations to halt the “scourge of war,” as the U.N. Charter says right at the start. At America’s urging, the organization outlawed the use of force, except where authorized by its Security Council or used in self-defense.
Even when the United States dishonored that ideal in the years that followed, peace remained potent as a guiding principle. Vietnam provoked a broad-based antiwar movement. Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (WPR) to tame the imperial presidency. Such opposition to war is scarcely to be found today. (The Iraq War inspired massive protests, but they are a distant memory.) Consider that the United States has undertaken more armed interventions since the end of the Cold War than during it. According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 80 percent of all of the country’s adventures abroad since 1946 came after 1989. Congress, whether under Democratic or Republican control, has allowed commanders in chief to claim the right to begin wars and continue them in perpetuity.
Legal constraints on U.S. warmaking — including international obligations, domestic statutes and constitutional duties — ought to have returned to the fore after the Cold War, the rationale for America’s vast mobilization in the second half of the 20th century. Instead, they have eroded to dust. At the outset of the 1990s, as President George H.W. Bush promised a “peace dividend” for Americans and a “peaceful international order” for all, the United States did rely more faithfully than before on Security Council approval for military operations. The Persian Gulf War, blessed by the United Nations to repel Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, was legal under international law. But enthralled by its exorbitant primacy in world affairs, the United States turned away from international prohibitions on war, finding the rules too restricting.
The next two presidents, attracted to liberal internationalist and neoconservative creeds that embraced armed force, treated international law cavalierly. Bill Clinton, for example, abused U.N. resolutions meant to control Saddam Hussein’s weaponry to justify new attacks, including the bombing of Iraq in December 1998. The next year, the U.S.-led NATO operations in Kosovo suggested that America would unleash its military for ostensibly noble causes — in this case to prevent heart-rending atrocity — even without the pretense of legality. Despite failing to obtain U.N. approval, the Clinton administration said the intervention should not be treated as a precedent (though it became one). Others excused it as “illegal but legitimate,” with self-professed moral intentions permissibly trumping law. “For the purpose of stopping genocide,” commented the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, “the use of force is not a last resort; it is a first resort.”
Once such arguments gained currency, their authors lost control of them. Conservative hawks found that a law-optional approach suited their agenda as well, and their liberal counterparts, if they disagreed at all, did so mostly as a matter of tactics, not principle. George W. Bush benefited from this permissive context when he launched the Iraq War, whose illegality was flagrant and catalytic, since it was unauthorized by the United Nations and relied on the administration’s dangerous claim that “anticipatory self-defense” justifies invasion. The world took notice. Russia, in particular, seized on the new U.S. position as a spectacular excuse to make incursions of its own in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014.
Obama won election in part because he ran against the Iraq War. In office, however, he cemented more than reversed America’s disregard of international constraints on warmaking. While failing to end the war in Afghanistan, his administration exceeded the Security Council’s authorization by working to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, converting a permission slip to avert atrocity into a blank check for regime change. Then, to punish the Islamic State, Obama bombed Syria on a contrived rationale — one that allowed attacks against nations unwilling or unable to control terrorists on their territory. When he nearly struck again in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Obama laid the legal foundation for Trump to strike the Syrian government, again without a U.N. sign-off. Once highly valued, then defied only with controversy, international law now scarcely figures in U.S. decisions of war and peace.
Like international law, U.S. domestic law enshrines an expectation of peace, setting a high bar for the resort to war. If war is to be waged, the Constitution requires Congress to declare it — a purposeful grant of authority to the branch of government that best reflects the diverse interests of the people and therefore should be harder to rouse to conflict than one commander in chief. Yet the nation has drifted from that tradition, too. After defaulting on its constitutional obligation during the Cold War (partly on the grounds that the speed of a potential nuclear strike required a president who could respond quickly), Congress declined to reclaim its authority after the Soviet threat passed.
In the 1990s, Congress might at least have kept faith with the WPR, which it passed in 1973 to rein in future presidents. The resolution calls for Congress to authorize “hostilities” within 60 days of their start; otherwise U.S. forces must withdraw. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, members of the House of Representatives brought presidents to court for taking military action in violation of the statute — in El Salvador, the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo, for example. But advocates of the strategy all but gave up and Congress itself increasingly deferred to presidential wars in the age of terrorism. By the time Obama intervened in Libya, the WPR lay in tatters. In a final indignity during the Libya operation, one administration lawyer explained that “hostilities” was an “ambiguous term of art” that might exclude aerial bombardment, so Congress did not need to approve a war that toppled a regime.
This deference has proved costly, allowing Trump to pose as an antiwar candidate against the mainstream of two political parties, a somnolent Congress and inactive courts. Once in power, this wildly unpredictable chief executive finally clarified the danger of entrusting the world’s mightiest military to one man’s whims. Congress has begun to stir. In voting this year to end U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war, it invoked the WPR for the first time while forces were active in battle.
Ultimately, elevating peace as a priority will require not merely changing legal norms but overturning the militarized concept of America’s world role that permeates Washington. Somehow, despite waging near-perpetual war, the leaders of the most powerful country on Earth have convinced themselves that America is always on the brink of turning “isolationist,” a peril against which every president since Ronald Reagan has warned as their terms wound down. Trump is likely to deviate from that rhetorical tradition, but the rest of the establishment carries on and doubles down. Today, it is military withdrawals, not destructive deployments, that freak out pundits and spur Cabinet members to resign, as Jim Mattis did last year over Trump’s vow to pull troops from Syria. Abandoning the Kurds there this fall was Trump’s “great betrayal,” lamented Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, who did not appear to lose sleep over our past military incursions.
Under Trump, who applies “maximum pressure” to all foes foreign and domestic, American militarism is more perilous than ever. It is also more undeniable. That is one reason the current moment is surprisingly hopeful. The call to end “endless war” continues to rise on the flanks of both parties, even as it is flouted by leaders of each. More and more Americans insist that, whatever interests are served by endless war, their own are not. More than twice as many Americans prefer to lower than raise military spending, according to a 2019 Eurasia Group Foundation survey. Veterans support Trump’s pledge to bring Middle East wars to a close: A majority of vets deem the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria not to have been worth fighting. The Afghanistan Papers ought to strengthen the consensus. Americans deserve a president who will act accordingly.
The United States would find partners far and wide, in nations great and small, if it put peace first. It could make clear that while spreading democracy or human rights remains worthwhile, values cannot come at the point of a gun or serve as a pretext for war — and that international peace is, in fact, a condition for human flourishing. Every time Washington searches for a monster to destroy, it shows the world’s despots how to abuse the rules and hands demagogues a phantom to inflate. The alternative is not “isolationism” but closer to the opposite: peaceful, lawful international cooperation against the major threats to humanity, including climate change, pandemic disease and widespread deprivation. Those are the enemies worth fighting, and bombs and bullets will not defeat them.
This article was co-authored by Stephen Wertheim and Samuel Moyn. It was previously published in The Washington Post