Paul Pillar

War Fatigue in America

Signs are increasing that the American people are growing tired enough over fighting two and a half (or whatever the right number is, depending on how you count what's going on in Libya) wars for their fatigue to affect policy, especially through the actions of their elected representatives in Congress. The war in Afghanistan, now the largest and most expensive in terms of ongoing operations, and now in its tenth year of U.S. involvement, has been the subject of several expressions of impatience. Less than two weeks ago a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the administration to accelerate a withdrawal from Afghanistan came very close to passing (the vote was 204 to 215). Now Norm Dicks (D-WA), an influential Democrat on national security matters who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense, has become an outspoken critic of the war. “I just think that there’s a war fatigue setting in up here,” says Dicks, “and I think the president is going to have to take that into account.” Skepticism about the war is increasingly being voiced by Republicans as well. Even Sarah Palin is expressing unease.

On Libya—on which Congressional dissent is fueled in part by the administration's blatant violation of the War Powers Resolution—two resolutions of protest were put to a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. One that was introduced by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and called directly for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Libyan conflict was defeated but attracted 148 votes, including 87 Republicans. The other, which was proposed by Speaker John Boehner as an alternative to the Kucinich resolution and passed, called on the administration to provide a more detailed explanation of the costs and objectives of the U.S. involvement in the war.

Then, of course, there is the Iraq War. It is still by far the most expensive of the expeditions in terms of cumulative costs, with the bill now exceeding $800 billion in direct costs and with all the eventual indirect costs making it more like a three trillion dollar war. But simply adhering to existing policy and agreements will mean that an end to this nightmare is just seven months away. There is no need for new action by Congress.

In general, bowing to popular fatigue is not necessarily a very careful and effective way of formulating national security policy. And throwing into the same hopper three wars that have been fought for different reasons (whether looking at the original rationales or at objectives that later emerged, which in each case were different from the original rationales) doesn't necessarily represent careful policy-making either. But when drawing down or terminating each of these expeditions is in the national interest—which it is—then the national war fatigue is a force for good. It can and should be harnessed to effect a change of course in Afghanistan and Libya and to resist any diversion from the course toward the exit in Iraq.

There are multiple reasons that drawing out rather than drawing down these expeditions would be contrary to U.S. interests; most have to do with the counterproductive nature of military activity that generates or stimulates more of the very kinds of extremism that some of the expeditions supposedly are intended to defeat. But monetary cost is another important reason. It is part of what underlies the unease on Capitol Hill. Amid all the concern about debt and deficits, the monetary cost of the wars should be a major shaper of policy. The cost of the war in Afghanistan in the current fiscal year is $118 billion. One can do all sorts of comparisons with the non-defense federal expenditures that House Republicans are determined to cut (and are using extortion regarding the debt ceiling to try to get their way) to appreciate how much that is and how important a reduction in that part of the federal budget is to addressing the deficit issue.

As for Iraq—where the continuing problems of creeping authoritarianism and festering ethnic and sectarian distrust would not be solved by extending the U.S. troop presence—the appropriate question is how much more of what already is an enormous burden, fiscal and otherwise, it is reasonable to ask Americans to bear. Maybe we should recall the part of the war-promoters' sales pitch that concerned expenses. Iraq is flush in oil, they said. This war could be fought on the cheap, they said. Paul Wolfowitz declared, “There is a lot of money there,” which could be put to “a good use instead of building Saddam’s palaces.” Surely there is a limit to how much more a nation that was duped into such a misadventure should be expected to endure.