Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced plans to bring home half of the 5,000 US troops still stationed in Afghanistan, as well as 500 of the 3,000 servicemembers now based in Iraq. The promise, on which the administration pledged to make good by Jan. 15, was unpopular among military brass and defense experts, but it handed an unexpected gift to President-elect Joe Biden.
The reason? Throughout this year's campaign, Biden vowed repeatedly to end America's "forever wars"; now President Donald Trump has suddenly moved the country 3,000 bodies closer to that goal. But Biden will soon face a much larger, and tougher, problem: How will he deliver on the rest of his pledge when he finally takes office? At this point, his odds of succeeding don't look very good.
To see why, you first have to define what the term "forever" or "endless" war actually means. The answer turns out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. That slipperiness explains why virtually every Democratic presidential candidate in this year's race, and Republican candidate Trump before them, were able to embrace the idea. You know that if Elizabeth Warren and Trump can agree on a policy, it's got to be pretty vague.
To his credit, Biden has at least tried to articulate what exactly he means. His biggest, and easiest, priority is avoiding more large-scale combat operations such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. That should be eminently doable: After all, no major wars loom on the horizon. The one possible exception is Iran—but even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the cabinet's uber-hawk on the issue, reportedly argued against Trump's idea of launching strikes on Iran's main nuclear complex last week.
Ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, as Biden has also promised, should also prove pretty easy; even numerous Republican senators agree on that one.
Progressives define ending forever wars much more expansively than Biden does.
But beyond that, things get much trickier. Progressives define ending forever wars much more expansively than Biden does. For example, Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, includes formally confronting all the negative aspects of the war on terror, including the use of torture, targeted killings, and cooperation with authoritarian governments: a process that could do wonders for US policy in the long term but would prove so divisive and controversial in the short that it's hard to imagine Biden having the stomach for it.
Meanwhile, the president-elect's determination to maintain a robust counterterrorism presence around the world will also spark anger among some of his allies on the left, who include counterterrorism operations in their definition of endless wars. And even if he wanted to, there are several powerful reasons why Biden would find it hard to end these low-scale combat missions—which as recently as 2018 involved fighting in 15 different countries—and to bring most US troops home.
First, as the last 20 years have shown, groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are very good at shifting form, moving into new countries with weak governments and very angry citizens, and then coopting that anger into their ultimate goal of global jihad. As they do so, they create dangerous new international threats in the process.
Second, every US president who takes office promising a more peaceful approach to foreign policy inevitably gets mugged by reality when unexpected threats arise, or his generals start pointing out the potentially disastrous consequences of abandoning or avoiding existing conflicts. As Kori Schake, head of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, put it to me, "It's much easier to criticize the practice of dealing with threats where they're emerging when you're not responsible for assuming the risk of getting it wrong."
Every US president who takes office promising a more peaceful approach to foreign policy inevitably gets mugged by reality when unexpected threats arise.
A large majority of Americans may favor bringing US troops home, and keeping them there. But do you really want to be the president who abandons the long-suffering Afghan people to the brutal depredations and strictures of the Taliban? Or the one who accepts the risk that pulling back America's global military presence could spark new conflicts or even terror attacks on the West (a remote but not impossible outcome)? Meanwhile, let's say you've pledged to support human rights—as Biden, like every Democratic candidate, has—and another round of ethnic cleansing breaks out somewhere. Are you really going to sit on your hands and just watch?
The answer to all these questions is probably not—which is why President Barack Obama, for example, entered office making similar promises but ended up sending more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting involved in Syria's civil war, and helping to topple Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi.
So what should Biden do to make good on his commitment? As president, he'll have three main options. The first could be called the Jim Jeffries approach: just lie. As Jeffries, a well-respected career diplomat who just stepped down as Trump's special envoy for Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, said in an exit interview last week, his team consistently deceived the White House about the real number of US troops in Syria—a number that remained much larger than the 200 servicemembers Trump thought he was leaving there after his loudly touted withdrawal last year.
Another, less duplicitous approach to ending forever wars would be to do what political scientist Charli Carpenter and many other scholars and advocates have suggested over the last 20 years: treat global terrorism as a legal problem, and use international law-enforcement tools to attack it. But this option carries so many risks and potential problems—both political and technical—and would be such a radical shift from long-standing US policy that it's hard to imagine a moderate consensus-oriented leader like Biden embracing it.
Biden's best option might be to follow the advice of Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, and to focus on process: improving the procedures that govern when the United States uses force, and enhancing the transparency of the system. Both Sanders and Buttigieg have stressed that a critical first step would be getting Congress to resume its constitutional duty to decide when the United States goes to war.
This approach would have obvious merits: Virtually all US military operations of the last 19 years have been conducted under legislation, called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in 2001 to give the George W. Bush administration broad latitude in its response to the terror attacks of 9/11. That's absurd; the law should never have been allowed to justify almost two decades of warfare around the globe, in countries as different as Niger and the Philippines.
But even the Sanders/Buttigieg strategy would face problems. Start with the fact that Congress has shown close to zero interest in taking more responsibility for America's wars. Attempts by Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and a few others to introduce legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF (and another similar law passed in 2002 to enable the war in Iraq) have fallen flat again and again. Congress has preferred to leave the hard decisions to the White House and then criticize it when things go wrong. It's hard to imagine why a majority of legislators would abandon that approach, cynical as it is, anytime soon.
What all this means for Biden is that he's unlikely to make much progress on what was one of the key foreign policy positions he took during the campaign—one that became very popular with his supporters. In my next column, I'll get into what this failure could mean for Biden's ability to hold onto the progressives who are a key part of his coalition. For now, it's enough to say that the longer the United States' forever wars continue—and Americans keep coming home in body bags—the higher the price Biden may end up paying. The national-security risks of retrenchment may be grave—but so could be the political risks of not doing so.
Jonathan Tepperman is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @j_tepperman
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.