Welcome back to The Bridge. After a summer hiatus, we are back to continue bridging the conversation between left and right when it comes to US military interventionism. Lastedition, we discussed national identity and US exceptionalism. Today we want to connect that to the global, geopolitical reach of the US in the post-9/11 context. We, millennials, have had our coming-of-age during this War on Terror. Now, with new murmurs of preemptive military action in North Korea, how we decide to approach further military action may well be our generation's defining issue.
During times of war in a constitutional democracy, one finds a domestic consolidation of powers, away from the normal checks-and-balances system. President James Madison knew this well, stating, “[o]f all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded” because warfare suspends certain measures of our Constitution. He goes on, “[n]o nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare”. We are thinking here, among other things, of the USA PATRIOT ACT in 2001, the NSA’s unimaginable secret surveillance program, or the right to a fair trial/any trial.
With the declaration of the War on Terror posed to have its 16th anniversary onSeptember 21st this year, one has to ask oneself how this has affected our democracy, socio-political structures, human rights standards, and the general rule of law both domestically and globally. When we pride ourselves and our society on the upholding of such values, not honestly assessing the actions and ramifications of America’s propensity for war is a disservice to the generations before, the generations to come, and most of all, the people actually fighting and dying in the name of those very same values and liberties.
This is a unique war: it is one without traditionally defined borders and enemies and therefore leaves room for political pundits and partisan discourse to define both of these contexts for our society. As the War on Terror has expanded to reach its global maxim, the rule of law and statutes which govern warfare and human rights have been compromised to serve the United States. A comprehensive discussion of this topic should approach interventionism from several different root causes. This issue will focus on socio-political roots for intervention, where us-vs-them is the paradigm we use to contextualize the world, only “us” is hardly concrete and “them” is downright vacuous. The next edition will approach it from the economic side.
Perpetual war has become our reality, and as Madison warned our personal liberties have been sacrificed, our moral character has diminished, and our understanding of the world has warped.
Today's Ground Rule: Understanding and discussing how culture, "security" and fear is used to strategically invoke a visceral reaction, and manipulate public opinion, is fundamental in reversing our penchant for military intervention.
While the president's chicanery via Twitter and untamed demeanor serve as the current binder for liberal cohesion, developing a larger ideological party consciousness remains scant.
Our outrage and obsession with the Russian scandal’s developments and Trump's ceaseless antics have the potential to seriously derail a mandatory moment of self-reflection within the Democratic Party. An obvious area that needs honest resolve and reflection is the unfettered and wide-reaching unilateral military power on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief in the post-9/11 era. As President Trump is currently discovering, the executive branch has only so much leeway granted for making unilateral domestic policy decisions.
Obama experienced this same realization in 2009 when he was confronted with a recalcitrant Tea Party and obstructionist Republican Party. Like presidents before him, he turned to an avenue that We, the people of the United States, have become overwhelmingly willing to succeed since the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Action Against Terrorist (AUMF)—unilateral, unchecked action. It is time, however, to have a deep and sober conversation on whether or not we as a society are ok with this. There is a political demand on behalf of the citizenry for a more balanced, diplomatic oriented avenue for engaging with the world. In fact, the Left should take note of the extent to which candidate Trump ceased this vantage point and appropriated progressive talking points in order to make his brand of global disengagement more palatable to the general public. Politics, in our current political climate, is largely met with warranted distrust and skepticism. However, the Left doesn’t have to search long and hard to find leadership on the aforementioned issue. Congressional Rep. Barbara Lee of California’s 13th district stood alone (98-0 Senate, and 420-1 House) in the resistance to relinquishing such immense constitutional power to the presidency. “I knew it was a blank check that would give any president the authority to use force in perpetuity. And every president has used that.” Every year since the initial vote on September 14th, 2001, Rep. Lee has proposed an amendment to repeal the AUMF, demonstrating a brand of personal perseverance and moral integrity that voters rarely see.
Now was she right to be concerned? Under the Bush and Obama administrations, this legislation has served as the legal justification for at least 37 military operations in 14 different countries. It has taken 16 years, 2 trillion dollars, roughly 5 thousand U.S. soldiers and countless other lives in distant lands but it looks like some other people in the House are starting to take heed of Lee’s initial warnings. On June 29th, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee passed a defense bill that included Lee’s repeal, only to have the House Rules Committee remove the provision on July 19th.
Virginia’s Sen. and former Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, along with Arizona’s Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, have been vocal proponents of repealing and replacing the 2001 AUMF with an authorization that narrows the scope of use geographically, demographically, and legislatively. While Kaine proved to be a divisive VP choice for liberals at large, this future host of America’s Funniest Home Videos has been raising important points and asking valuable questions. Despite his early endorsement of Obama in 2008 while he was still Governor of Virginia, Kaine was critical of Obama’s use of the AUMF in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. However, he holds congress more responsible than the presidency, faulting the branch’s “lack of backbone” as the reasoning for the “moral outsourcing” of their responsibility.
His vision for a replacement still endorses a bellicose foreign policy stance when dealing with terrorism that is very much debatable, however, his willingness to confront his own party’s president in order to stand by his constitutional convictions should be recognized, appreciated and replicated.
Trump’s isolationist and strongman rhetoric has created an opportunity for Democrats to counter his position with an interventionist stance that seems politically advantageous. Neo-cons already established a cozy relationship with Democrats during Hillary’s campaign, and they continue to fledge alliances with various Democratic operatives and policy makers. Regime change and military meandering in the post-9/11 era have been predicated on the leeway granted under the 2001 AUMF. Trump’s lasting legacy might be convincing the American public that the powers of the Presidency have become too expansive and must be reeled in. The Left has the opportunity to stand up against this critical social, cultural and political crisis and win votes as they do it. A party unified around regaining political integrity and establishing accountability,is the only one that stands a chance at earning back the trust of America.
Whether we like it or not, the United States is earth’s sole remaining superpower. The armed forces of the United States have an unprecedented ability to wage war with anyone, anywhere, at any time—and we need to approach this kind of power with equal responsibility. As much as I would like to preach a policy of non-interventionism, there will come times when military action is not only justified, but is morally required (such as in ending or preventing genocide where no workable political solution is present). If the Republican party has any interest in gaining relevance and viability amongst shifting demographics within the voting public, it must come to understand that unfettered military spending and armed conflicts without end are neither popular norsustainable, and that a military policy focused on discretion is the only way to move forward.
War is costly, both in terms of dollars and human lives, thus we should seek to limit it only to times and circumstances where it is absolutely necessary. Military action should only be used to protect the United States and its citizens, or to protect the rights of individuals, groups, or nations that cannot protect themselves. In those circumstances, war should be a last resort—only after every diplomatic option has been exhausted. While we have engaged in a multitude of conflicts that pass those tests, we have had our fair share of questionable actions. At this point, with the information that we have, it would be pretty hard to justify the war in Iraq if we use these criteria. For all future military actions, evidence of wrongdoing and non-military efforts to solve the problem must be presented to Congress before any bombs hit targets or boots hit the ground. We also need to limit the President’s ability to wage war without congressional approval except in clearly defined cases of self-defense.
Once Congress and the President have arrived at the conclusion that action is justified, Congress must authorize military force, and if we have learned anything from the war in Afghanistan, it is that Congress must place specific limits within their authorization for the use of military force. The AUMF passed in September of 2001 did not specifically limit military action in terms of either time or geography, which is why it is not only still the document providing the legal basis for our continued involvement in Afghanistan all these years later, but also for military action in more than a dozen other countries. All future authorizations must have strict, unambiguous limits in size, time, and scope, and they must face regular reauthorization votes. All possible military actions need to be evaluated on their own merits, not deemed legal based on a document that has been around for longer than many members of Congress.
We also have to realize that our military isn’t good at everything. For how good the US Military is at waging war, it is equally bad at nation building. Long-term stability in a war-torn region cannot be solved with force. A political, diplomatic solution is the only way to successfully bring a region back from war. While it is true that troops can remain in place as a peacekeeping force, it tends to lull lawmakers and the public at large into a false sense of security. Troop presence does not equate to stability. Our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan have been laughable, and it isn’t our first rodeo. Even in Korea, where large sums of American troops have been stationed for decades, the relationship between the North and South has remained tense since the armistice agreement in 1953. The only times that long-term occupation has truly worked have involved large alliances of nations and a focus on diplomacy and governance, not military might (post-war West Germany being the greatest example). Any military action that the United States plans to undertake must be done in concert with our allies—not only to achieve a swift victory, but to assist in a quick return to stable, self-sustaining peace.
We need to place limits on ourselves. Our military policy must be based on restraint, where we only act when absolutely necessary, have a concrete plan for a return to normalcy, and have a large coalition of allies across the globe. Endless war and a just, democratic society that holds the fundamental rights of its populace as inviolable cannot coexist. Until the Republicans come to this conclusion they will simply be viewed as the hawks that many of them are.
For two weeks this summer, I drove through the old roads of empire. In Italy, lessons of history are omnipresent. Every city, street and river has something to say about invasion or aggression, defense or offense, fight or flight, triumph or surrender, conquered or conquest. In other words, the business of empire. For over 500 years, expansion was profitable and war was a way to keep the peace.
If there were troubles in Rome, find another enemy, fight another battle, remind the people, who’s in charge, remind the people why they need the state—enemies—security—stability. Rome, an indispensable force. Romans, the most sophisticated, the most enlightened, were the righteous rulers of the world. Where would the world be without their ingenuity, their technology, their governance?
On September 12, 2001, ESPN published a notably sober analysis of the previous day’s events from Hunter S. Thompson. Contained within was a striking prediction:
“The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country.”
On the west coast, my family and I watched the towers fall before my father drove me to middle school. We watched news for half a day, the crash, the collapse, the reaction, the valor. We watched until the developments slowed and our parents were called to pick us up early—we have been at war ever since. Thompson was right.
In the beginning, it was clear to everyone why we were fighting. It was obvious. We had been wronged, our country needed to be defended. It was black and white, and questions were contemptuous—what, you don’t get it?
-President G.W. Bush 9/20/01
Only later were we allowed to ask the most obvious questions like “defend ourselves against who, against what?” It felt simple, the Taliban.
Then Iraq? Then Pakistan? Then Yemen and Somalia? Then Libya and Syria?
Is it a war on Islam or a fight for democracy? Is it for our security, WMD’s or a benevolent concern for an oppressed people? The answer is telling, it’s whatever fits you best. There was one person out of 535 who voted Nay against the Authorization for Use of Military Action Against Terrorist in 2001. The next year 77 out of 100 Senators voted Yay to Authorize Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Obama took over in 2008 vowing to end the war, and then used the powers of the office to double down, to help overthrow Qaddafi and expand the boundaries of the war. Then eight years later, Trump won on the same anti-war message, only to get in and immediately increase drone strikes five fold and bomb Syria to cheers from both sides of the aisle and both sides of the media spectrum. This level of agreement within the factions of our political sphere seems surprising but it’s the congruent ideologies that underlie these seemingly separate sides that allows them to fall in line together so harmoniously.
Where does this culture of fixing via violence come from? What is this ideology that fuels our policies? What is the nature of this war our generation has been raised on, assumed to believe in, and expected to sacrifice not only our lives for, but our liberties, values and future?
For a generation of politicians 20 years older than the average American, raised in the American glow of WWII and calcified in decades of cold war proxies and policies, American military action as a global force for good is not a hard pill to swallow. For a generation raised to hate the never ambiguous “terror” via hollywood, looking atmountains of debt, volatile financial markets, confused half-regulated healthcare markets, disintegrating public education, an opioid crisis more deadly than the AIDS in the 90s, unquestionable racial disparities and a weakening, unmovable, congressional body hell-bent on ignoring science and accelerating climate change—the idea that our nation’s overwhelming priority should be policing the world is a much harder pill to swallow.
We are a generation nearly numb to this thought of perpetual war, and I sense, in my generation, a general population disconnected from America’s constant warring. There is no draft, and while the pentagon takes up at least 16% of total annual spending and nearly 50% of discretionary spending, there are only about 2 million active and reserve forces. That means less than 1% of the population fight our wars at any given time, and now with outsourcing to private contractors coupled with drone technology we could see that actual American troops fighting for America shrink even further.
With the active people fighting being relatively few and the fact that we were in grade school when this cascading war in far away places was voted on, there is clearly reason for this apathetic feeling—it’s just normal. But maybe our distance isn’t our weakness but our strength. We have inherited this standard, we did not create it and we don’t have to abide by it. After all, there is plenty of justification to reconsider how we conduct ourselves in this world.
By almost all metrics, the War on Terror has been a colossal failure. Rather than squashing terrorism we have created the conditions to guarantee its perpetuation, and this according to the libertarian CATO institute “military intervention and nation building efforts, even at current ‘light footprint’ levels, cause more problems than they solve.” It is costly, to the tune of two trillion dollars and yet ineffective. It jins up fear and threats that grossly over-hype the actual danger (for 3.5 years in North Africa’s Morocco I was statistically safer than I have ever been here/anywhere else), building resentment andstereotypes that don’t reflect reality. In our fear we have been led to sacrifice liberties as well as human rights, further corroding our moral standing globally.
Touring Rome I was struck by the parallels of America’s current state of affairs. As we move from enemy to enemy, country to country, convinced in our righteousness, convinced by its imperative nature, we have forgotten ourselves in the process. As we expand our fronts to fight more of them, we have forgotten to reinvest in the institutions back home that got us here in the first place. Just as Rome, if we continue, it won’t be a quick conquering of our capitals by terrorists but a slow rotting from the inside that will bring about our fall. But maybe, because our involvement is just beginning, because our careers or our reputations aren’t backed on political choices over a decade ago, because we have more stake in the future, because we didn’t place ourselves here in the first place, we may be more willing to forge a new path, one that steers us clear of these old roads of empire.
A Word With Nassim
Given our country’s diversity, you might know someone who immigrated here as a result of US involvement in their domestic “development.”
At The Bridge, we value understanding our neighbors, friends, and colleagues’ backgrounds. While they may not bleed red, white and blue, they still came to the United States for a number of important opportunities and reasons. We find it important to listen to know how our actions abroad look from their perspective?
We reached out to Nassim Nouri, a retired biomedical engineer, political and social justice advocate in Santa Clara, CA, whose family emigrated from Iran when she was young to find out how she might see the international role of the US differently.
Why did your family decide to relocate to the US?
My dad was in the Iranian Air Force and we moved to NJ for a joint Iranian-American training and logistics mission. We moved a year and a half before the Iranian revolution and had no idea the revolution was brewing, my dad was reluctant to uproot the family for a 3 year mission but my sister and I were excited and looking forward to going to school in the USA, thinking the quality of education was higher and a better challenge! YES we actually thought that… we’re geeks.
At the time of our relocation, I was 13 years old.
Was it an easy process? How did you gain acceptance into the US before becoming citizens?
It was not enormously difficult, mostly because we were here already, very lucky as we knew many military families who made many sacrifices to escape the country after the revolution.
Since we were already here on a diplomatic visa, after the revolution, our visa status was terminated. As the new Islamic Republic started executing all high ranking military personnel from the last regime, my parents made the heart breaking decision to stay here and leave all our life, family and future dreams in our country behind. We had to apply for political asylum (less than1 year process), then apply for green cards (~6 yearprocess) then apply for citizenship (~ 6 years), which I received in 1994.
Culturally, it was not a difficult assimilation for me, even after the hostage crisis I was never threatened or openly shunned, my small high school in NJ was concerned and protective of our family, and later in college (Rutgers Univ, very large school with many foreign students) there was not much hoopla about it.
The US and Iran have a very complicated relationship. How aware of US involvement in Iranian domestic affairs were you growing up (i.e. Mossadegh, Shah Reza)? What were the differences, if any, you noticed between the US versions of these stories and the Iranian versions?
At 13 years of age, I was not at all politically involved or very aware in Iran. The events around the assassination of Mossadegh and CIA involvement were certainly NOT taught in our history classes nor commonplace discussion. My parents were adamant that we do not get involved with political activity because of the risk from many directions. The first time I was introduced to the “alternative facts” of the US media was during the Iranian revolution and later the following hostage crisis. We lived in NJ at the time and were glued to the TV, watching the future of our country fall apart. The ‘news’ reports and accounts by the US media were plainly false when compared to our own relatives’ accounts, and even European news outlets! I stopped watching and believing US media at age 15!
What do you wish Americans knew about Iran that you think may not be well known?
The 3000-year history of the Persian empire is a good place to start, but we here don’t even know the short 200-year history of our own country! Above all, I wish ALL Americans knew how uninformed they are. I too have become uninformed by living here, it’s a contagious disease. This is what I have said for years to everyone asking me about foreigners' perception of America: Everyone wants to live here because here, we can afford to be lazy and ignorant.