Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.
We may never see unassailable substantiation or debunking of The Atlantic story alleging President Donald Trump privately speaks of U.S. war dead as "losers" or "suckers" and otherwise insults American forces and veterans.
Neither believers nor deniers are likely to produce video, audio or documentary proof of Trump's guilt or innocence. Even a president in the age of social media has some moments left unrecorded.
But while our national conversation has broached the subject of poor treatment of American troops, our attention should turn beyond Trump himself to a bigger and more durable insult: Washington's foreign policy of the last 19 years. If Trump's alleged comments offend us on the troops' behalf, this state of perpetual warfare should infuriate us.
For nearly two decades and over three administrations, U.S. foreign policy has assigned American soldiers to reckless, counterproductive, miserable and even impossible tasks. It has asked them to act well outside their rightful purpose and oath of enlistment. It has tasked them with battles unconnected to U.S. interests and neglected constitutional safeguards. It has asked our troops to kill and be killed as instruments of aggression rather than defense.
Our post-9/11 foreign policy promised quick victories and delivered generation-long fights. It lengthened soldiers' deployments and busied them with endless occupation, counterinsurgency and nation building. It rotated in new commanders and tactics and left larger strategic questions -- "Is this right? Is it necessary? What does 'victory' look like, and how is it achieved?" -- habitually unasked. The results were predictably disastrous.
This foreign policy uses American forces to defend dictators, take sides in regional religious turmoil, intervene in civil wars, overthrow governments, and otherwise meddle in situations that were never ours to resolve. Like an invisible treadmill, it keeps the military ever trudging but never actually moving toward conditions-based withdrawals paradoxically predicated on conditions unlikely to arise absent U.S. withdrawal. It slanders any objection to this state of affairs as "irresponsible," as if there could be anything responsible about a state of permanent war.
This dysfunction is already apparent to U.S. veterans and active-duty military alike, as poll after poll in recent years has demonstrated. Six in 10 veterans want the United States to be less militarily engaged abroad, and seven in 10 support full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. Eight in 10 service members and veterans say both these wars have "been going on too long," and strong majorities of veterans say the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were not worth fighting. Only one in three believes our post-9/11 foreign policy has made our country safer. As The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney wrote of one such survey, "The Americans most directly affected by this endless war emphatically want it over. ... The people who fight our wars want less war when we can help it."
And we can help it. The most generous possible interpretation of Trump's alleged comments is that he wants less war, too. That was the meaning suggested by a retired Green Beret, Joe Kent, in an Associated Press report. "I didn't get any kind of disrespect," Kent said. "He seemed to me to be a leader who was deeply conflicted about sending people off to die."
Trump's foreign policy record to date doesn't convince me of that view. He's happy to talk about bringing troops home and ending "endless wars" but notoriously sluggish -- if not outright oppositional -- about putting those words into action. If the president is really conflicted about sending people off to die, he can make good on his many promises and finally stop sending them.
In fact, whatever Trump did or didn't say or mean, that's an option always available to him or any president. The foreign policy of the next two decades need not replicate that of the last two. We could learn from our mistakes, reevaluate our grand strategy, heed this remarkable consensus among the military community, and finally change course.
If our concern for service members, veterans and the war dead is more than performative outrage, we should reject the disgraceful foreign policy whose brunt they've borne.
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