"What did thousands of dead Americans get us?" Before granting war powers, let's see where the last two got us

As we plan another war, it's time to ask: Just what kind of real-world results has our war machine produced so far?

Published February 22, 2015 11:58AM (EST)

John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld         (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Jonathan Ernst)
John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Jonathan Ernst)

President Obama’s new National Security Strategy and his move to extend his war powers to fight ISIL reflect the challenge of keeping alive the image of the United States as a guarantor of global stability as failed states proliferate and refugee populations swell.

While the administration projects the air of "no drama" inner serenity, the 24-7 news cycle streams video of a rising tide of bloody sectarian violence on the march from Africa, through the Mideast and into Eastern Europe. Last week the president's proposed budget tipped his hand, in that even though he says he has brought home over 90 percent of the ground troops from the Iraq-Afghanistan theater, there was no peace dividend in the proposed FY2016 spending  plan.

The president’s freshly minted National Security Strategy is first and foremost self-congratulatory and disconnected from reality. It reads like what could be the introduction to a sequel to the president’s “The Audacity of Hope,” which he could title “I Did My Best Under the Circumstances.”

“Globally, we have moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade. Compared to the nearly 180,000 troops we had in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office we now have fewer than 15,000 deployed in those countries,” the president writes. “We possess a military whose might, technology and geostrategic reach is unrivaled in human history.”

And so, the inference is those ground wars are over because, well, we say they are. Yet now, as the Times reports, the president has a new and improved kind of war he's selling. Now might be the time to pause and ask just what kind of practical real-world results has our unparalleled military machine produced so far?

All the Beltway reporting about the prospects of new war powers for the president focus on the parlor politics of whether he can get it through Congress, not on the efficacy of his strategy. Funny, how we insist on results-based assessments on everything else but lose all reason when we hear the battle bugles blare.

Are we living in a safer world with a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya? Isn’t there, as some experts have posited, a possible casual link between the way we prosecuted the war on terror so far, and the proliferation of violence so much of the world is still living with today? Did the U.S.'s last 13 years of our "shoot-'em-up" unilateralism with fuzzy justifications, because we were afraid, make it easier for Putin to flex his muscles because he's feeling insecure?

So just what did several thousand dead Americans,  and at least tens of thousands of civilian casualties, plus a couple of trillion dollars get us?

Even as the president says we are heading "home" from Iraq and Afghanistan records are being set for the numbers of killed and wounded civilians caught in these seething pits of sectarian violence we’ve left behind. The U.N. reported last month that for 2014 in Iraq more than 12,000 civilians were killed in the deadliest year for noncombatants since 2008. In Afghanistan the U.N. Assistance Mission there said close to 3,200 civilians were killed and more than 6,400 wounded, the deadliest year since the conflict started.

In the president’s 29-page National Security Strategy there is no mention of the fact that after thousands of lost American and Iraqi lives, and hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, the Iraqi state we stood up came close to collapsing after a near-death experience at the hands of ISIL, a threat the U.S. did not see coming. Now, ever so quietly, the Obama administration is sending U.S. troops back in to Iraq.

There is some truth telling coming out of the federal government. According to the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction the “Afghan economy is weakening, government revenues are falling, far short of targets, and the need for foreign assistance to close the resulting fiscal gap is growing.” At  the same time the oversight agency reports  external grants coming in are on the decline.

This deteriorating fiscal condition will leave the central government in Kabul precious little money for the gun buy-back program they will need. SIGAR recently reported that officials may have lost track of 43 percent of the almost half-million small arms the U.S. shipped into Afghanistan.

Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, had a pretty frank appraisal on the facts on the ground for her audience at her briefing on the president’s new National Security Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “Yes, it is a region where the violence is spilling across the borders, not only between Iraq and Syria frankly, but other nations in that same region.”

So is the U.S. repositioning ground troops homeward a kind of tactical retreat, while it steps up less labor-intensive warmaking to "mop up" this cross-border mess that is spinning out of anybody's control?

While details of how the president plans on using his refreshed war powers are still vague, the price tag is not. In the president’s proposed FY 2016 budget he calls for ending the so-called sequester that Congress approved back in 2011 when it pledged that, if it could not make sufficient progress on deficit reduction, the federal government would face across-the-board robo-budget cuts on all discretionary spending, both domestic and military.

The FY 2016 proposed budget, unshackled by sequester, includes lots of new proposed spending for education, programs to promote upward mobility, and public infrastructure, about $37 billion above the sequester levels currently the law.

But for the Pentagon the president’s budget adds $38 billion in regular defense spending and another $58 billion for so-called “Overseas Contingency Operations,” all on top of the more than half a trillion dollars the U.S. is already spending on the military.

On the PBS News Hour White House budget director Shaun Donovan made dire predictions about what might happen if Congress does not sign off on the tens of billions in new military spending. No longer is America’s greatest security threat from terrorists, rogue or otherwise, but from sequester itself, the ever earnest Donovan told the nation.

"If you listened to the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week they said one of the most dangerous threats we are facing around the world is sequestration. If we can't reverse these cuts we are not going to be able to invest in the critical things we need to keep folks safe overseas and keep them safe at home,” warned Donovan. “Right now we are having a fight about whether we are going to fund homeland security for a full year. We need to do that and increase investments like cybersecurity and the many other things  like the technologies of the future where the wars of the future are going to be fought."

We are on a “wars of the future” conveyor belt where we will keep spending mindlessly, without pausing to see what the trillions we have already spent have actually bought us and the planet.

Veronique de Rugy, analyst at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, says that even under sequester U.S. military spending was already quite robust and underscrutinized.

“We have already had massive increases in defense spending. It is a terrible idea,” says de Rugy.  She suggests there is something seriously amiss “if you can’t protect the nation with $500 billion” especially when the federal government, since after 9/11, has been able to spend annually tens of billions more than that by labeling it as “emergency” war funding to elude spending caps.

De Rugy contends the continued use of such Overseas Contingency Operation funding insures there is much less accountability and scrutiny of that spending. “In the past when America went to war they would label it as an emergency for a couple of years  but then it would be back into the regular budget process,” she says.

De Rugy says that when it comes to military spending even the most fiscally conservative Republican member of Congress has a real blind spot. “When it comes to spending on food stamps they’ll say all spending on that program does not lead to less hunger or not all education spending translates into better educational outcomes,” but when it comes to defense “they don’t apply the same critical thinking.”

“What’s really stunning is they never actually pause and take a step back and ask the hard questions about just what are we getting for all this money,” says de Rugy.“You see them systematically coming back with the same policy solutions disconnected from the reality of whether or not they are working. There is a tipping point where spending all this money actually becomes counterproductive.”

As the White House and Congress get down to negotiating the budget, odds are the president’s lofty plans for new funding for things like Head Start and upward mobility for struggling households the “recovery” left behind will fall by the wayside. No doubt the new defense spending and end of sequester for the Pentagon will be hailed as a shining example of a great triumph of bipartisanship between the White House and the Republican Congress.

We've got to stay on a war footing. It's all we know how to do.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly

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Afghanistan Aumf Barack Obama Budget Iraq Isil Isis Mid East War