Honor Our Veterans With a Better Foreign Policy

Honor Our Veterans With a Better Foreign Policy
AP Photo/Steve Ruark
Honor Our Veterans With a Better Foreign Policy
AP Photo/Steve Ruark
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After the attacks of September 11, 2001, millions of Americans were deployed overseas to combat zones in nearly a dozen countries. They joined the honored ranks of millions of other American veterans alive today who fought bravely in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, not to mention those who served during the Cold War or participated in 1990s conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War. 

The veterans of our most recent wars distinguished themselves in challenging situations time and again. When we consider martial valor and individual sacrifice, we shouldn’t only think about our troops on the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima. We should also remember those who fought in dusty places like Fallujah, Baghdad, and Kandahar, displaying heroism to rival that of previous generations. Thus, we rightly honor their service today. 

However, the tactical successes and individual bravery of American fighting men and women over the past 17 years cannot mask the broader failures of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11. Nor should they be used as justification to continue endless wars disconnected from U.S. security in places like Afghanistan. 

The best way to honor the sacrifices of our post-9/11 veterans and their families is to make sure we pursue a foreign policy that only calls on our troops to fight when absolutely necessary for our safety, prosperity, and way of life. We shouldn’t ask people to risk everything for their country when what they are fighting for has little to do with U.S. interests or can only be connected to them indirectly via distorted or idealistic theories of the world. We dishonor veterans when we continue to pursue failed policies that can’t be clearly linked to why so many of them joined in the first place: to defend America and our freedom here at home. 

It isn’t surprising when we hear so often about the need to “stay the course” in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan in order to honor our fallen and the veterans who served in those conflicts. We understand the psychology of not wanting our heroes’ sacrifices to have been in vain. However, when we can’t connect continued fighting to a plausible strategy for victory, it doesn’t honor anyone. Would those who have given the ultimate sacrifice want us to continue pursuing the same failed strategies that lead to the same disappointing results while also ensuring that more service members will serve and die in those places? 

That is what our current approach to the world ensures. Yes, the American military is the best fighting force in history. But the architects of our foreign policy are misusing that great asset because they lack a coherent national security strategy and are relying on misguided approaches to insurgencies and terrorist organizations. 

Nor can this military remedy the problem that many of the foreign policy decisions made since 9/11 served only to empower our adversaries in the Middle East and those who attacked us on that fateful day. For example, the decisions to use military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya -- no matter how grotesque their regimes – undoubtedly strengthened the positions of Islamic radicals aligned with al-Qaeda as well as Iran. Subsequent acts of heroism in those countries by the American military and our intelligence agencies can’t undo the fact that these misguided interventions undermined stability across North Africa and the Middle East. 

Likewise, the fact that our troops have fulfilled key strategic objectives in Afghanistan by decimating al-Qaeda (including killing Osama bin Laden) and punishing the Taliban government does not justify remaining in that country without a clear strategic rationale for staying. Nor do the costs in blood and treasure of our failed nation-building project mean we must stay in Afghanistan until some miraculous transformation of that flawed country is realized. Afghanistan’s future must be won by Afghans.  

Our beliefs aren’t out of line with what we are hearing from our fellow veterans. A large percentage share our skepticism of America’s current foreign policy and our military engagement around the world. In recent polling by RealClearPolitics and the Charles Koch Institute, 49 percent of veterans said the U.S. should be less militarily engaged around the world while only 17 percent said we should be more engaged. Sixty-one percent do not believe it is our responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan has a liberal democratic system of government, while 69 percent of veterans would support the president if he withdrew all troops from Afghanistan. It would be wise to listen to the realism of these voices who have shed sweat and blood in this fight and are the last ones who would shift course out of timidity.  

Today, many of our elected officials will rightly recognize those who have served. But if they truly want to honor our veterans beyond the traditional “thank you for your service” speeches, they will advocate for a more realistic foreign policy that only sends those who serve into harm’s way when America’s vital national interests are at stake -- and with a sound approach to advancing them.

William Ruger is vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the Afghanistan War.

Dan Caldwell (@dandcaldwell) served in Iraq in the United States Marine Corps and is currently executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.

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