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Why Does the U.S. Keep Getting Involved in Conflict?

08/10/2014 10:39 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2014

Ukraine. Gaza. Syria. Yemen. Pakistan. If it feels like the United States is always at war somewhere, that's because it is. Not just Iraq and Afghanistan - the two wars we all know about. And, granted, we're not only talking boots on the ground. It's our money, our weapons and - more often in recent weeks - our Secretary of State, engaged in high-stakes diplomacy to uneven results. At his last count, investigative journalist Kevin Gosztola put the U.S. war count at 74. These are mostly unannounced and undeclared wars against enemies that have different aspirations, strategies and ideologies.

Why? The official line varies. Some conflict engagement is, we're told, about nation-building (Iraq and Afghanistan.) Other operations are to remove a despotic ruler (Syria, Libya.) Some engagement is designed to pick off a terror group/groups (Oman, Pakistan, Yemen) and/or to spread "true" democracy (Iraq and Afghanistan, again.) There are wars we engage in to free people from a cycle of fear (Central African Republic) to stem the flow of hundreds-year-old bloodletting (Israel/Palestine) and to keep old foes in check (Ukraine/Russia).

"Perpetual war for perpetual peace," is how historian Charles Beard described the national security doctrine of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and it largely remains the blueprint for U.S. foreign policy today. HuffPost Live looked at the reasons why last week in "Always At War," a three-part series I hosted focusing on the current violence between Israel and Palestinian forces, the psychology and policies surrounding 9/11, and the military industrial complex that underpins U.S. warfare.

The last of these conversations took place just 24 hours before President Obama authorized limited air strikes in Iraq, with a stated mission to protect American personnel and rescue tens of thousands of Yazidis stranded by the Islamic State - formerly ISIS or ISIL - on Mount Sinjar in the north of the country. (The air strikes were still ongoing at the time of writing, and the State Department has not confirmed an official end date.) Addressing the nation, President Obama said that an Iraqi in the area had cried out that no one was coming to help his people, but that:

"Today, America is coming to help." -- President Obama, August 7, 2014.

And why shouldn't the U.S. help? The slaughter of the Yazidis by the Islamic State seems almost certain. The group has successfully dispatched Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government grip on power and the foundations of an American-backed (and funded) Iraqi security force with horrifying precision. (To put the precision of the Islamic State operation in context, after the jihadi group tore through Tikrit and Mosul back in June, 60,000 Iraqi soldiers reportedly fled on the first day of the assault.)

Yet, in response to the president's speech, skepticism rather than sympathy for this escalation in U.S. involvement in Iraq's situation overwhelmingly presides. And it's easy to see why. Iraq might be the most palpable failure of our generation: Fifty-two percent of Americans say the U.S. has mostly failed in reaching its goals in Iraq, according to a Pew Research poll from this January. The same survey concludes that since 2011, the percentage of Americans who believe that the U.S. has achieved its goals in Iraq has dropped from 56 percent to 37 percent.

This might have something to do with the fact that our goals were pegged to fighting a "war on terror," the rhetoric that passed for foreign policy after 9/11, but that had really been percolating for decades before. (As the then House Majority leader Dick Armey told Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic back in 2002, the legislation that was passed in the Patriot Act, included many policy points creating greater executive powers that had been floating around long before President Bush took office.)

Today, terror in Iraq looks different to Saddam Hussein and the specter of WMDs. Certainly, the current air strikes on the Islamic State group are presented to us as separate from our previous fight - one that cost $2 trillion. Yet, while this is ostensibly a "new" military action in the Levant, it is at minimum just another foray into a conflict with no exit strategy and one that's in response to sectarian violence that has been created, ironically, by our own foreign policy. As David Wood, HuffPost senior military correspondent explains:

In this country we tend to look at foreign problems in a military way. So, send in the marines. Sell military goods. And a lot of the reason is because we don't really get involved in crises very often until it becomes an overwhelming problem, and there's almost nothing left to do except using military force. I think as hard as this is to realize, I think part of the problem is, we don't back up and pay attention to situations as they're developing.

While the eyes of the American media and public might have shifted back to Iraq for now, just a week ago they were, momentarily, back on Afghanistan. In another example of how dangerous the country still is for our military, we heard about the killing of Major General Harold Greene, who was killed by an Afghan soldier in a green-on-blue gunfire exchange.

The killing of the most high-ranking American general since the war began - and in the year that combat operations are supposed to have wrapped up - underscores how fluid our goals have been. Our mission in the country is now more about extricating troops safely than nation-building. Three in four Americans believe that history will judge the war in Afghanistan a failure, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll out this week. As Mehdi Hasan says on HuffPost Live:

Every single soldier who dies - it's a tragedy - but they really are dying for nothing because this is not a war that's being won. The Taliban have not been defeated. Women's rights are not secure. We're not leaving behind a liberal democracy in Afghanistan.

What we are leaving behind is in fact, as Hasan says, "more war, and more terror." What we're leaving behind in terms of our reputation is the idea of American lawlessness.

America is a nation that's signed up to international humanitarian laws - and has helped to establish organizations to impose those laws - but as former Guantanamo lawyer Colonel Morris Davis told me, "It weakens our standing to lecture others about their behavior when they can point back at us and say 'You're not practicing what you're preaching.'"

The idea of America's lawlessness continues to hurt us. It's been a shadow over our attempts to intervene when smaller nations are being picked upon - when Secretary of State John Kerry flew to stem the crisis in Ukraine, as Mehdi Hasan says, "the world was laughing at the United States when they went out to condemn Vladimir Putin for violating national sovereignty [of Ukraine] and international borders, and UN resolutions."

Similarly, after Kerry flew into Tel Aviv to broker a temporary cease-fire between Israeli and Palestinian forces, he left for home with his tail between his legs. The little Kerry had to show for his efforts evinced what Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon reported in July in the New Republic, the failed peace process attempt earlier this year has shaken relations between the U.S. and Israel, and dissolved the desire of Israeli politicians to continue their public display of respect for U.S. counterparts.

Our lawlessness doesn't just hurt us abroad. Lawlessness has encroached into the U.S.'s domestic affairs, with the NSA's almost Orwellian reach into civic life. As host Alyona Minkovski told me on HuffPost Live:

I think especially here in America, the public consciousness was so affected with what happened on 9/11 that we've given carte blanche to the military and to the Pentagon overall to just do whatever they feel is necessary. And now we see that that has really ultimately violated so many of our own fundamental principles of what it is to be an American. When we see that the government is spying on us [...] and are we really seeing the results or the effects? [As a recent 9/11 report says] we're as prepared today as we were on September 10th of 2001 to try to counter a terrorist threat abroad.


No one is arguing that juggling the power America is capable of wielding, with the responsibility of a nation to protect its citizens, is easy. And at a press conference this August, President Obama argued engaging in global affairs is not always a smooth process.

Apparently people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on Earth, still does not control everything around the world. And so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backwards. That's been true in the Middle East. That's been true in Europe. That's been true in Asia. That's the nature of world affairs. It's not neat, and it's not smooth. [But the point is] that if you look at the 20th century and the early part of this century, there are a lot of conflicts that America doesn't resolve. That's always been true. That doesn't mean we stop trying.

But it's just that idea, Mr. President - of America being the most powerful country on Earth and transposing that as a license/duty to get involved in every conflict that seems to be somehow connected to our own nation - that is the problem.