By Dr. Carolyn Eisenberg
Professor of US Diplomatic History
Here is something that affects every student on this campus:
According to a just released Brown University study, the U.S. “war on terrorism” has so far cost American taxpayers approximately $3.6 trillion. When you add to this the administration’s spending request for 2017, including estimated veterans benefits, the total comes to approximately $4.79 trillion.
This is so much money it is hard to even visualize. Also elusive are the societal consequences: the bridges and roads that didn’t get fixed, the public schools that have been under-resourced, the college scholarships that never materialized and the host of federal programs (day care, housing, health care, food stamps, climate change) that were inadequately funded.
One might say, “Well if that’s what we need to keep our country secure, then that $4.79 trillion dollar expenditure is worth it ...” But is that really the case? Has this approach to the problem of “terrorism” left the United States or the rest of the world any safer than it was in 2001? And if not, what changes of direction should be made? These are urgent questions that ought to be debated, but have been largely ignored in this election.
While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton joust over who is tough and smart enough to vanquish America’s enemies, they both embrace the conventional wisdom that American military superiority is essential and that the threat or use of American military power is vital to national security and international order.
It was precisely this ideology and the associated network of vested interests that shaped the Bush administration’s tragically misconceived response to the attack on 9/11. Instead of treating this as an international crime, requiring apprehension of the perpetrators, the Bush administration went to war with two countries – Afghanistan and Iraq. The perverse result was that the leaders of al-Qaida managed to escape to Pakistan, while the United States became embroiled in armed conflicts that persist until this day.
Sixteen years later Afghanistan is a mess: the economy a shambles, its government corrupt, the Taliban surging and its American financed security forces ineffective. Why do we still have 8,400 troops there? What good are they doing? And why is there no serious discussion of this calamity in an election year?
Or take the case of Iraq, which had no connection to 9-11 and no significant terrorist presence until the United States chose to invade, stimulating the growth of al-Qaida in Iraq, which in turn spawned ISIS, which then spread into Syria—increasing the instability and violence there. Donald Trump has rightly criticized Hillary Clinton for her 2002 vote to authorize the Bush Administration to wage war there. But like Clinton, Trump favors the expanded use of US military power to now defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The list of dysfunctional choices goes on – involving both the Bush and Obama administrations. And the costs have been immense, not merely in dollars, but in Americans killed and wounded by the tens of thousands, civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by the hundreds of thousands, people displaced from their homes by the millions. And while, it is surely true that today’s carnage in the Middle East has multiple sources, American militarism has made each crisis worse.
As of now, the US has dropped bombs in at least seven Muslim countries, while also killing by drone strikes an excess of 2,500 people (many non-combatants). Yet in last night’s debate, neither candidate challenged these decisions nor how they multiply America’s enemies.
In one respect, this presidential election offers a clear choice: between a prejudiced, know-nothing amateur, whose belligerence guarantees confrontation and a more experienced, steady and knowledgeable candidate, who is clearly attuned to the complexity of international life. The choice in casting a November ballot seems obvious. But the day after the election, the real choice begins: can a new generation wage a sustained campaign to reverse the course of U.S. militarism which, along with climate change, poses the gravest threat to the well-being of our country?
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