Only two decades in, the twenty-first century has so far been one of profound crisis. But one thing has stayed remarkably, resiliently consistent: the “war on terror.”
The century kicked off with the horrific September 11 attacks that prompted that so-called war, with Afghanistan its first stop. Invading to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who were responsible for the attacks, the Bush administration instead allowed them to escape so they could depose the ruling Taliban, who hadn’t.
Ten years later, with the “war on terror” now bigger and bipartisan, the decade now ending kicked off with US military finally claiming Bin Laden’s scalp in an illegal nighttime incursion into another sovereign country. Greeted on American streets like a second Victory over Japan Day, the assassination was a strategically pointless act aimed more at securing Barack Obama’s reelection than bringing the “war” to an end.
As if to prove the point, nearly another decade later, the 2010s are coming to a close with the United States fighting the “war on terror” on more fronts than ever — and still, as ever, in Afghanistan. What’s more, the decade will end only weeks after the release of a massive tranche of government documents that lay bare how much of a sham the entire, nearly twenty-year-long effort has been: they show that the US military has fought without a clear strategy from the start, that it has spent vast amounts of money and lives for little to no advancement of its goals, that it has sewn corruption into the bedrock of the country’s political system, and, most damningly, that it has done all this fully conscious that it is and has been a failure, lying to the US public about the progress of a war that many of those fighting knew wasn’t going well.
So as this decade ends, this is where things stand: $6 trillion wasted, 800,000 killed, 200,000 US troops overseas, three regime change wars (with a possible fourth on the way), and seven countries bombed by remote control — and counting. Read this way, things look decidedly pessimistic, with the US government and its allies ever upping the ante to fight a “war” in which the enemy seems only to spread with every year, dollar, and human life poured in.
Yet if we look past these statistics, another story weaves its way through these years. When the century began, reflexive military intervention was a popular, bipartisan commitment, a legacy not just of the World Trade Center attacks, but of the Reagan and Bush years. There is no longer a significant national political constituency that favors this approach.
Both the Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan wars were astronomically popular when they began. As this decade ends, a majority of Americans view Iraq as a mistake, while a wavering near-majority feels the same about Afghanistan. Look at the partisan breakdown, and the results are more stark. While most Republicans seem never to have wavered in their support for the war in Afghanistan, the number of Democrats and independents (who still claim the largest share of party affiliation) who do hovers around 50 percent. When asked this year if the war had made the United States more or less safe, more than half of both groups said the latter.
So at the end of the 2010s, more Americans in total believe the invasion of Afghanistan has made the country more vulnerable than those who think the opposite. It’s a popular rejection of the Bush-Cheney doctrine that once seemed monolithic and unassailable. Indeed, whether they know it or not, this segment of the public has internalized what was perhaps the predominant left-wing critique of the “war on terror,” once dismissed as the wailings of America-hating hippies.
This goes beyond Afghanistan. In the middle of Trump’s attempt to engineer a war with Iran, after the country downed a drone and Trump ordered a missile strike in retaliation, a solid majority of respondents backed his last-minute decision to call it off, with only a statistically insignificant number voicing support for actual, outright war. The percentage of Americans who think fighting terrorism should be a “very important” foreign policy goal, though still a large majority, has nose-dived since 2001. Other surveys reflect a public attitude in favor of generally restraining US military involvement overseas.
By the middle of the decade, these views had expanded beyond the often ignored realm of public opinion and snuck into the wider political process. Though Trump won the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency by pledging a program of war crimes, he also won by repudiating George W. Bush and his wars, assailing the wars of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and gesturing toward détente with one of the foreign policy establishment’s greatest nemeses — positions that may well have won him the presidency.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, gave Clinton a good scare in 2016 by taking a markedly less interventionist stance. Since catapulting to the top tier of 2020 Democratic candidates, he’s only refined and strengthened those positions: steadfastly opposing Trump’s gargantuan military budgets, leading a historic effort to end US support for the genocidal war in Yemen, calling for international cooperation in combating climate change, and periodically suggesting it’s time to rethink the “war on terror.” At worst, given his recent climb in the polls, we can say none of this has dented Sanders’s popularity.
Sanders’s rise has augured another, potentially bigger shift in US foreign policy. Aided by both Trump and an arrogant and increasingly far-right Israeli government, US public opinion is slowly turning against Israeli policy, particularly within the Democratic Party. Forty-two percent of US Jews think Trump has favored Israel too much in the ongoing conflict, and one poll has a similar proportion of Americans backing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, including a majority of Democrats. This in turn has opened up space for figures like Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and the rest of the “Squad” to inject previously unheard-of critiques of Israeli policy into the mainstream, including calls to condition US military aid to the country. Though there’s still a way to go, this state of affairs seemed unimaginable as recently as a few years ago.
We shouldn’t overstate things, of course. Most Americans still broadly favor military action against ISIS and other terrorists, and still do not understand the dire threat of climate change, which only Democrats view as a foreign policy issue on par in importance with terrorism. Guantanamo Bay has all but disappeared as an issue, and no mainstream political figure seems eager to break from the Obama drone warfare paradigm. And irrespective of public opinion, the military-industrial machine has kept on chugging, with the “war on terror” and the global footprint it needs to thrive only quietly expanding.
Still, the fact that these shifts have happened at all, and without the presence — during this decade, at least — of a powerful, visible antiwar movement, is significant. It’s a solid base from which to build the great foreign policy project of the next decade, the goal Sanders now regularly name-checks on the campaign trail: ending endless wars and moving toward global cooperation to combat climate change, what should ideally be the new organizing principle of US foreign policy. Such cooperation and all it entails — from combating corporate power and constructing a revived commons, to creating world institutions focused not on war and profiteering, but on peace and justice — would be a crucial step in the wider battle to take back power from the global ultra-rich, eradicate world poverty, and end Western exploitation of the global South.
As the 2020s begin, the United States and the world are looking at a very different set of challenges that will further scramble the foreign policy assumptions that have ruled for the past decades. Besides an intensifying ecological crisis, there is an emerging far-right axis, from India and Brazil to the United States itself, backed by business interests and seeking a solution to this crisis through ethnic cleansing and, sometimes, expansionism. Meanwhile, an oblivious Washington establishment continues to labor under a framework designed decades ago in a different world. We may well look back on the 2010s as the decade a fundamental transformation got underway. And we may see the 2020s as the decade they took hold.