In October, President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of troops supporting the Kurds in northeastern Syria was placed under the umbrella of the president’s effort to “end the endless wars.” Barely a month later, the US Central Command ordered 500 troops to resume fighting in that region to quell any ISIS growth.
The American military is now “conducting training exercises, active combat, and air and drone strikes on six continents.” Or put another way, the United States military is currently operating in 40% of the world’s nations.
Despite the proclamations and efforts of American presidents, and presidential candidates, the “end of endless wars” has no visible expiration date.
The end of the Second World War began the start of the Cold War: the battle between democracy and communism and the United States and Russia. With the Cold War came a stronger relationship between the military and private industry. The Cold War was good for business and as the saying goes, business was good.
This relationship wasn’t given a public name until President Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961, when he said, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
The military-industrial complex relates specifically to those fluid relationships that include political contributions, political approval for military spending and lobbying. Perhaps it’s best understood by the flow of money and resources among individuals, defense contractors, private military contractors, institutions, the Pentagon, the US Congress and the executive branch of the United States.
Famed linguist Noam Chomsky disputes the concept of the military-industrial complex. In On Power, DIssent, and Racism: A Series of Discussions with Noam Chomsky, he asserts, “There is no military-industrial complex: it’s just the industrial system operating under one or another pretext.”
With only a handful of years where defense spending decreased, it has steadily increased since 1948. After the end of the Cold War, military spending in the United States increased very little until September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the “War on Terror.” In 2002, the military budget was 362 billion dollars and for the 2020 budget, 718 billion dollars has been designated for the Department of Defense. And that is expected to grow to 776 billion dollars by 2034.
However, a 0.5% annual military increase from 2020-2034 seems to be a miscalculation based on historical military spending. In the years between 1996 and 2015 that had an uptick in military spending, it was an average increase of 3.75%. A 0.5% annual increase appears to be small when America is doing battle on 40% of the world.
The relationship between military contractors, the military and government oversight is such that it’s often referred to as the “iron triangle.” This “iron triangle” is made up of the decision making relationships between congressional committees, the bureaucracy and interest groups. Given these relationships and the various US military activity throughout the world, the question that must be asked is whether this “end of endless wars” is a possibility.
The rhetoric from President Trump and the presidential candidates around this topic would lead you to believe that an end to all of the American military conflicts is on the horizon. The reality is more complicated and can’t be explained or marginalized to a 240-word tweet or a 20 second sound bite.
All of the Democratic front-runners have released articles and proclamations saying there must be an “end to endless wars” and “forever wars” must cease. However, all the candidates are short on specifics on how to do so.
In a release from June of 2019, Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders offers a plan that falls short on specifics. While maintaining the US fight against terror he calls for a softer approach like diplomacy.
Democratic candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan calls for a similar approach but has made more than one gaff in explaining how. For example, in October, she mentioned that America needed to “get out of the Middle East.” This left her team scrambling to immediately issue a follow-up tweet to clarify that Warren meant “combat troops.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, and current Democratic presidential front-runner, also claims a desire to end “forever wars.” However, given his hawkish foreign policy views and history on pro-war voting as a member of Congress, one must consider his statements with scepticism.
In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump won over a large number of voters by also claiming he was going to end the wars that America was embroiled in. This has also been part of his rhetoric for the length of his administration. However, to date, his record indicates otherwise.
As President, he’s been unable to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, he vetoed an order to exit Yemen and has not ruled out military action in Venezuela. He’s also been less than shy about his animus towards Iran.
The American military’s presence around the world isn’t contracting it’s expanding.
In 2007 the United States established Africa Command (AFRICOM). The American military has thousands of troops, planes, air bases, drone bases, outposts, etc. spread all over the continent. In March of 2019, AFRICOM’s outgoing commanding general, Thomas Waldhauser, told congress that AFRICOM is bound to be a “forever outfit.” His thinking calls up shades of the cold war as he believes that “Russia has taken a more militaristic approach in Africa.”
In Somalia alone, 2018 saw U.S. forces strike the leaders and fighters of Islamist terror group al-Shabaab 47 times, tripling the amount carried out by the Obama administration in 2016. The U.S. military is increasing its presence there, placing 500 troops and an estimate from the Pentagon says that those troops in Somalia will be there for “at least another seven years.”
And just recently, as a result of the heightened tensions with Iran, 1,400 additional troops have been ordered to the Persian Gulf as a precautionary measure.
The past sixty years have seen America expand its military influence across the globe. In addition to no less than five wars: Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Afghanistan and the War on Terror there have been countless military skirmishes and billions of dollars spent on varying degrees of military support for American allies.
The sentiment behind removing troops and slowing down global military expansion is largely a bi-partisan political issue. It’s also a perspective shared by a large swath of voting Americans.
However, given the intricate web and fluidity of geopolitics and the influence of the military-industrial complex an end to all the military conflict America is involved in is a really optimistic point of view. Furthermore, anyone who claims to have the definitive idea or plan to end these “forever wars” should be considered dubious.