David Coates

Extracting the United States from a Condition of Permanent War

The scale and character of US military action overseas didn’t figured much in the Democratic Party’s internal debate on the choice of a presidential candidate, but with that choice resolved it needs to figure now. Indeed, the question of what constitutes a progressive foreign policy needs to move center-stage – and to do so with as much haste as we can muster.


Partly because, as we saw in Cleveland, the Republicans are going to make defense policy a big issue in the fall. They are going to present themselves as the party of “peace through strength,” as Ronald Reagan did before them, promising a bigger military and a more bellicose foreign policy – all in the name of greater American security. The 2016 Democratic Party platform may have been uncharacteristically brief on foreign policy, largely offering more of the same if Hillary Clinton replaces Barak Obama;1 but the equivalent Republican platform was not. It was long. It was angry. It was critical, and it was bellicose.2

Partly because the overseas role of the US military since 2008 is among the least satisfactory elements in the Obama legacy. It is acceptable neither to progressives wanting a degree of military disengagement nor to conservatives wanting the Obama administration to carry on where the Bush Administration had left off. So the overseas role of the US military has become the one part of the legacy that needs to change most if the next president is to reduce US exposure abroad and weakness at home.

And partly because Hillary Clinton’s past record suggests that by temperament she is more hawkish on foreign policy than is the president she served as Secretary of State.3 (Certainly that was the way she chose to present herself in Philadelphia: as a strong and steady commander-in-chief with a partially military solution to ISIS in her sights.) So unless she is persuaded to change her stance, her presidency is likely to compound rather than to rectify a set of foreign policy weaknesses that stretch back through all previous presidents from Reagan on.

Leading Republicans regularly tell us that the Obama Administration is directly responsible for the existence and growth of ISIS, and that the US is threatened by radical jihadists now because of a failure by the Obama Administration to maintain a sufficiently large and active military role in the Middle East. John McCain has even gone so far as to tie the contemporary threat posed by ISIS to the Administration’s decision to pull US forces out of Iraq.4 But he, and they, could not be more wrong; and because that is so, all of us would do well to reflect instead upon the following.


The current problems of the Middle East are not the fault of the Obama administration, no matter how often Donald Trump says or implies that they are. The problems of the Middle East run far back in time, as any serious reflection on history must demonstrate: arguably stretching back at least to the years of the Ottoman Empire if not further, and certainly to the artificiality of the states created in the region under British and French leadership after the First World War. The United States is now the dominant imperial power in the region, but it is not the first: and the most recent American contribution to Middle Eastern politics – the role of US foreign policy in entirely destabilizing the region – only really began with the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the illegitimacy of which has just been underscored in London by the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry Report.5 ISIS was not created by Obama-style military weakness. Donald Trump is quite wrong on that. ISIS was formed out of al Qaeda-in-Iraq on George W. Bush’s watch and well before McCain’s much-vaunted surge of troops, first in Iraq under Bush and then in Afghanistan under Obama.

Far from being too inactive abroad militarily, the US is currently trapped by excessive amounts of military action into a series of on-going wars, no one of which is in any military sense being won. Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, and his initial hope for a rapprochement with the Islamic world, have not prevented the US military – on his watch – from being sucked back into Iraq, from being trapped still in Afghanistan, and from being now heavily engaged in a series of proxy wars in Libya, the Yemen and the horn of Africa. As recently as July 12, the Obama administration added another 560 troops to the 3,500 US special forces already in Iraq;6 and this is just the latest example of a now clearly established trend that will, among other things, keep thousands of US troops in Afghanistan through 2017.7 America’s wars in the Middle East may be becoming less visible at home, but they remain nonetheless very real on the ground. President Obama came into office expecting to roll back American military commitments overseas, and indeed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his good intentions. But perhaps to his own surprise, and certainly “to the deep disappointment of his former supporters,” he has ended up “overseeing the largest military budget since WWII, an eight-fold increase in drone strikes” and the authorization of “special forces operations in at least 134 countries.”8

The human and financial costs of this string of overt and covert military operations have been, and remain, enormous. They are enormous in financial terms. The United States alone has spent $6 trillion on military activity in the Middle East since 2001, and will continue to spend massively there in the future unless policy is fundamentally changed.9 The human cost is more enormous still – a cost borne, it should be noted, primarily by the civilian populations of the region. (Even in the recent ISIS-related terrorist outrage in Nice, one-third of those who died were Muslims.)The western press goes into hyper-drive whenever a terrorist attack kills civilians in Belgium, France or the United States – indeed, that hyper-drive is one reasons for the attacks being made – but is now almost immune to the far more regular and large-scale slaughter of the innocents being experienced in Arab towns and cities in the Middle East and in Muslim communities around the world. The US military have lost 6000 dead in the Middle East since 2003 and at least 100,000 wounded,10 and maybe as many as 500,000 veterans are continuing to suffer physical and mental illnesses linked to their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.11 But terrible as those numbers are, they are nowhere near the figures we have (or can safely conjecture) for civilian deaths in the region, for civilian mental trauma there (especially among children), and for long-time civilian disabilities directly related to the on-going military conflicts. If recent reports are accurate, the number of civilians killed in the Middle East since 2003 is probably running somewhere between one and two million in total.12

The Obama solution to fighting wars without American boots on the ground continues to raise profound moral issues, and to tarnish America’s image abroad. Instead of putting large numbers of American soldiers into the field of battle, the US has settled into a series of air-strikes to degrade ISIS’s capacity on the ground, supplemented by executive-authorized judicial killings, the widespread use of military drones, and the expansion of black-ops by US special-forces. But waging war invisibly and from a distance in this manner does not make that way of waging war in some new sense “clean.” On the contrary, these new forms of US military engagement remain morally problematic, or even “dirty.” For air-strikes are doing more than degrading ISIS. They are degrading the physical fabric of entire Arab cities.13 They, and the drones that accompany them, are killing innocent citizens just as effectively as they are killing ISIS militants. The Administration may low-ball the number of such collateral casualties14 – the real numbers are likely far higher than the Administration has reluctantly conceded15 – but the existence of such collateral damage is not itself in dispute.

All that collateral damage might be worthwhile (or at least tolerable in American eyes) if US military expenditure and activity produced the direct results required. But it doesn’t; and it won’t. The track record of the US military since 1945 is not an impressive one.16 Korea was a draw. Vietnam was an outright loss. The invasion of Iraq simply generated a quagmire, and “after 13 years, two wars and trillions in military spending, terrorist attacks are rising sharply….worldwide from less than 1,200 in 2000 to nearly 10,000 in 2013.”17 Even countries once thought secure, like Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban, are now in doubt again.18 For as Richard Falk has wisely argued, “the truth is that the forces of national resistance in country after country in the South can outlast their Northern interveners despite their military inferiority and subjugation…as the Afghan saying goes, ‘you have the watches, we have the time’.”19 America learned that lesson in Vietnam, and is learning it again now. Instead of success in any obvious military or political terms, almost 15 years of permanent warfare by the United States in both the Middle East and parts of Africa have left only “an expanding series of failed states, spreading terror movements, wrecked cities [and] countries hemorrhaging refugees.”20 If this is success, then what would failure look like? This set of outcomes can hardly have been what George W. Bush had in mind when he announced “mission accomplished.”

Moreover, to a significant degree we are a target for ISIS because ISIS is a target for us. They are attacking us because we are attacking them, in the process helping to sustain their central narrative and claim for legitimacy – that of warriors against a crusader west.21 ISIS-inspired attacks against France22 and Russia23 can and should be similarly explained. For it is surely time for us to recognize that there is no way in which we can prevent isolated terror attacks by radicalized jihadists here at home unless we stop adding to their number with every military action we take. Nor can we easily prevent disturbed individuals getting hold of lethal armory and using it to kill and maim US citizens, unless we block access to those weapons by the native-born disturbed and the radicalized. And we do need to keep a clear sense of scale here, if only to lower the level of fear and panic. From the start of 2002 to the end of 2015, at most some “38 Americans have been killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism,”24 while more than 400,000 Americans died from gun-related crimes in that same period. The United States is currently pursuing a military strategy against ISIS that Fareed Zakaria characterized as “whack-a-mole:” pounding ISIS strongholds from the air with huge quantities of munitions.25 But to the degree that whack-a-mole is working, it is not destroying ISIS. It is simply pushing ISIS back onto the very guerrilla tactics that make civilian life in potential western city-targets ever more insecure.26

The biggest threat to the safety of US citizens at home does not come from radical jihadists. It comes from home-grown terrorists of a racist or homophobic disposition. For contrary to the impression often given by Donald Trump and his conservative allies, not all overseas terrorist incidents are ISIS-related. Nor does the main source of violent death in US towns and cities these days come from foreign fighters, or even from radicalized misfits at home. The evidence is clear: “since September 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.”27 Which is why yet another argument for pulling back from so major a role in the fight against ISIS is the distraction one: namely that current US military action abroad is compounding a danger at home that already exists, and in doing so is merely distracting policy-makers from the more urgent need to address domestic internal sources of violence and insecurity.


I realize that the relative silence on these matters at the 2016 Democratic Party convention was not simply a product of short-term electoral concerns. It was also a reflection of the difficult underlying reality in play here: namely that – whether progressives like it or not – ISIS is now a threat, that the threat which ISIS poses is now growing, and that policy to reverse that threat is neither easy to design nor obvious to spot. But what is obvious, at least from a progressive perspective, is that containing ISIS will require a fundamental resetting of US military policy abroad, since the one thing that we do now know is that present American policy is only making the ISIS problem worse.

Several things follow.

One is that here in the United States we do now need – and need as a matter of urgency – a renewed and extensive public conversation about the character and scale of US military involvement overseas, focusing particularly on the adequacy of drone warfare and of covert operations. We need a public debate that is sufficiently wide as to allow us to explore the possibility that airstrikes, drones and special ops are collectively counter-productive in the fight against ISIS. As Richard Falk recently put it: “this is the Rubicon that no Democrat, including Sanders, has dared yet to cross: the acknowledgement that military intervention no longer works as an instrument of American foreign policy and should not be used as the first line of response to challenges emerging overseas, especially in the Middle East.”28

We need to return to a foreign policy that anchors US military activities inside existing legitimate international agencies, alliances and institutions, instead of disregarding those institutions in favor of ad-hoc US-initiated and led “coalitions of the willing.” Prior to 2003, turning to institutional institutions was often the first and normal response by US presidents to major international flare-ups. We went to NATO about Kosovo. We went to the United Nations about Afghanistan. We even went to the UN for a second resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein. We did so then, and we need to do so again now: not least in order to bring US policy into line with what ISIS has now become – a problem of significance for all major powers, and not just for the United States and its immediate allies.

One corollary of that use of NATO and the UN was a sharing of global power with other significant international players. That is a sharing that was commonplace before 1989. Before 1989, the United States recognized a division of global authority that left huge swathes of Eastern Europe and northern Asia beyond its control and responsibility. It is only since 1989, with the Cold War over, that policy-makers in Washington DC seem to have settled into the mindset that every global problem is America’s, and that being America’s, is theirs alone to solve. It is a mindset from which we need to step back. Because all the problems out there in the world are not America’s alone to own and to solve, and those that are ours are often compounded whenever the US makes a predominantly military and unilateral response to them.

We need to replace our current governing imperial mind-set with a foreign military stance that prioritizes intelligence gathering at home and abroad – intelligence gathering designed to monitor and check the development of radical Islamic networks. We need to replace a preoccupation with nation-building overseas with the rebuilding of our national infrastructure at home; and we need incrementally to shift the center of gravity of our manufacturing and engineering sectors away from military to civilian production, and away from the export of high-quality arms29 to the export of high-quality non-lethal consumer goods. We need, that is, incrementally to retreat from the mind-set of Empire.30

Changing direction in this fashion will not be easy. Political memories are short, and the majority of American voters are now too young to remember the Cold War at its height, let alone the world before Pearl Harbor. It is so easy to “sell” to the American electorate the idea of the United States as the world’s only global policeman because, for most Americans, that policy stance is all they have ever known. But there is a strong, if little discussed, case for changing that policy stance: for pulling the United States back from an ever-expanding military role overseas, for returning the problems of the Middle East to the United Nations for their resolution, and for sharing the governance of the international order with other international agencies and with other great powers.31 As the rhetoric of the presidential campaign reinforces the drift to permanent war, it is a case that progressives need to make – and make loudly and on a very regular basis.

These arguments are more fully developed in

David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires.32

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

3 Editorial Board, “Mrs. Clinton’s Syria Strategy,” The New York Times, November 20, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/20/opinion/mrs-clintons-syria-strategy.html

6 Michael S. Schmidt and Mark Landler, “U.S. Will Deploy 560 More Troops to Iraq to Help Retake Mosul From ISIS,” The New York Times, July 12, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/world/middleeast/us-iraq-mosul.html

7 Matthew Rosenberg and Michael D. Shear, ‘In Reversal, Obama Says U.S. Soldiers Will Stay in Afghanistan to 2017.” The New York Times, October 15, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/asia/obama-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan.html

8 Nicholas JS Davies, Since 9-11 America’s Insane Foreign Policy – Continued Under Obama – Has Killed a Million and Created ISIS, posted on Alternet, September 10, 2014: available at http://www.alternet.org/world/9-11-americas-insane-foreign-policy-continued-under-obama-has-killed-million-and-created-isis

11 David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 13: available at http://www.davidcoates.net/media-coverage/charlotte-talks-with-mike-collins/

12 Ismail Khalidi, Letter From Nice: The West Is Learning All the Wrong Lessons From the Latest Atrocity. Posted on Alternet, July 16, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/grayzone-project/letter-nice-west-learning-all-wrong-lessons-latest-atrocity

13 Martin Chulov, “Iraq: Shia militias rule after battle to free a city of ghosts and graffiti,” The Guardian, July 9, 2016: available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/09/falluja-isis-shia-iraq

14 Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, “U.S. Reveals death toll From Airstrikes Outside War Zones,” The New York Times, July 1, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/world/us-reveals-death-toll-from-airstrikes-outside-of-war-zones.html

15 Karen DeYoung, “The foggy numbers of Obama’s wars and non-wars,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/the-foggy-numbers-of-obamas-wars-and-non-wars/2016/05/22/5648b798-1d2f-11e6-b6e0-c53b7ef63b45_story.html

16 James Fallows, “The tragedy of the American military,” The Atlantic, January-February 2015, pp. 73-80: available at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/01/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/

17 The title of an article by Christopher Ingraham, in the Washington Post, November 18, 2014: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/18/after-13-years-2-wars-and-trillions-in-military-spending-terrorist-attacks-are-rising-sharply/

18 Thomas Jocelyn and Bill Roggio, “Are We Losing Afghanistan Again?” The New York Times, October 21, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/opinion/are-we-losing-afghanistan-again.html

19 Richard Falk, “Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Disappoints,” The Progressive, March 2. 2016: available at http://www.progressive.org/news/2016/03/188590/why-democratic-party-foreign-policy-disappoints

20 Tom Engelhardt, War, What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing, posted on TomDispatch.com, February 25, 2016: available at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/war_what_is_it_good_for_absolutely_nothing_20160226

22 Nafeez Ahmed, Some little Known Reasons Why France Is on the Frontline of the War with the Islamic State. Posted on Alternet, July 15, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/world/some-little-known-reasons-why-france-frontline-war-islamic-state

23 Peter Beinart, “The Terror Trap,” The Atlantic, March 2016: available at http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/112990144/terror-trap

24 Peter van Buren, How to Resolve the ISIS Crisis. Posted on TomDispatch, January 17, 2016: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176091/tomgram%3A_peter_van_buren,_how_to_resolve_the_isis_crisis/

25 Fareed Zakaria, “Obama’s Whac-A-Mole strategy,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-obamas-whac-a-mole-strategy-works/2016/07/14/9688f474-49f5-11e6-90a8-fb84201e0645_story.html

26 Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt, “As ISIS Loosens Grip, U.S. and Iraq Prepare for Grinding Insurgency,” The New York Times, July 26, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/26/world/middleeast/isis-iraq-insurgency.html

27 Scott Shane, ‘Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11,” The New York Times, June 24, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/us/tally-of-attacks-in-us-challenges-perceptions-of-top-terror-threat.html

28 Richard Falk, “Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Disappoints,” The Progressive, March 2. 2016: available at http://www.progressive.org/news/2016/03/188590/why-democratic-party-foreign-policy-disappoints

29 Gregory Foster, A Case for Demilitarizing the Military, posted on TomDispatch.com March 15, 2016: available at



David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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