Why aren't we talking about the fact that America is fighting six wars? Several journalists pose that question in recent columns, and it's a good one.
For the most part, we are letting our allies carry the burden of fighting in these conflicts while we provide intelligence, training, equipment and massive off-shore power. We have nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel engaged in Afghanistan, about half that many in Iraq, a few hundred in Syria and smaller but unspecified numbers in Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
While these wars have a lot to do with our fight against terrorism, no one is eager to acknowledge them, and the American public is not well-informed. Journalists don't write about them much. Politicians don't discuss them. They are not debated in election campaigns.
This is a remarkable circumstance. Yet it follows a sort of pattern in which the U.S. has intervened in overseas conflicts with increasing frequency.
Since the Cold War ended 25 years ago, American forces have been engaged somewhere in the world roughly 75 percent of the time. Pundits have called this the "forever war," and it raises the question: Is this simply the way of the future, the new normal?
As a nation, we struggle to strike the right balance between always intervening and never getting involved. Given America's leadership role among nations and the pre-eminence of our military -- along with the turmoil and chaos in the world -- this dilemma is likely to continue.
Some say we intervene too often. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, says military force has become almost the first choice. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says we're too quick to "reach for the gun." But others accuse our leaders of being too timid.
Military intervention is tempting, but its course is unpredictable and its consequences uncertain. Once begun, it tends to expand. Once we engage, it is hard to disengage. Nation building is more difficult than it appears and requires a sustained commitment. The cost is usually higher than we anticipate. The results of our involvement in small wars in faraway places have not always been encouraging. Each situation becomes complicated.
For those reasons, restraint must be a hallmark of our intervention policies.
These interventions are occurring at a time when the public lacks an appetite for an expanded U.S. role in the world. Many Americans want their government to focus on problems at home. They are ambivalent toward, if not downright opposed to, involvement in faraway wars.
Congress has abdicated its rightful role in overseeing the use of military force. It doesn't even debate these interventions. It certainly does not act to authorize them.
The authority that is typically cited is a resolution that Congress passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. But it is a flimsy basis for intervention, almost a fig leaf. ISIS, al-Shabab and other adversaries didn't yet exist in 2002.
The most serious question that governments face is when to send young men and women into battle, risking their lives and future. But rather than deliberate this question and approach it directly, we seem to slide into military involvement on multiple fronts.
None of these conflicts appear to be on their way to a speedy resolution. President Barack Obama will turn over to his successor most if not all of them.
Going forward, we should embrace the fact that the United States is the world's most powerful nation, with a duty to help maintain peace and order. We should never stop trying to make the world better. We should take pride in what we have done to advance peace, prosperity and security.
But in our confidence that we can fix what's wrong, we have more than once displayed a touch of arrogance. Our aim should be to make America safer, stronger and more prosperous. That means we have to identify and prioritize our core interests as well as our most serious threats.
Many politicians -- and many pundits -- have a boundless vision of what we can do. They will suggest we should stabilize every threatened country, scale up our support wherever it is needed. But we cannot intervene everywhere. We have to make hard choices.
We should be much more sensitive to the cost of intervention -- in money and resources but especially in casualties. We need to consider whether we have vital national interests at stake and the political will to sustain involvement to a satisfactory conclusion.
Smart intervention policy requires renewed evaluation by our political leaders. They should start by acknowledging and appraising the wars we are fighting.
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