Forty-five years after Congress passed the War Powers Act in the wake of the Vietnam War, it has finally used it for the first time, to try to end the U.S.-Saudi war on the people of Yemen and to recover its constitutional authority over questions of war and peace. This hasn’t stopped the war yet, and President Trump has threatened to veto the bill. But its passage in Congress, and the debate it has spawned, could be an important first step on a tortuous path to a less militarized U.S. foreign policy in Yemen and beyond.
While the United States has been involved in wars throughout much of its history, since the 9/11 attacks the US military has been engaged in a series of wars that have dragged on for almost two decades. Many refer to them as “endless wars.” One of the basic lessons we have all learned from this is that it is easier to start wars than to stop them. So, even as we have come to see this state of war as a kind of “new normal,” the American public is wiser, calling for less military intervention and more congressional oversight.
The rest of the world is wiser about our wars, too. Take the case of Venezuela, where the Trump administration insists that the military option is “on the table.” While some of Venezuela’s neighbors are collaborating with US efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government, none are offering their own armed forces.
The same applies in other regional crises. Iraq is refusing to serve as a staging area for a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi war on Iran. The US’s traditional Western allies oppose Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and want peaceful engagement, not war, with Iran. South Korea is committed to a peace process with North Korea, despite the erratic nature of Trump’s negotiations with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jung Un.
So what hope is there that one of the parade of Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 could be a real “peace candidate”? Could one of them bring an end to these wars and prevent new ones? Walk back the brewing Cold War and arms race with Russia and China? Downsize the US military and its all-consuming budget? Promote diplomacy and a commitment to international law?
Ever since the Bush/Cheney administration launched the present-day “Long Wars,” new presidents from both parties have dangled superficial appeals to peace during their election campaigns. But neither Obama nor Trump has seriously tried to end our “endless” wars or rein in our runaway military spending.
Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and vague promises for a new direction were enough to win him the presidency and the Nobel Peace Prize, but not to bring us peace. In the end, he spent more on the military than Bush and dropped more bombs on more countries, including a tenfold increase in CIA drone strikes. Obama’s main innovation was a doctrine of covert and proxy wars that reduced US casualties and muted domestic opposition to war, but brought new violence and chaos to Libya, Syria and Yemen. Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, the fabled “graveyard of empires,” turned that war into the longest US war since the US conquest of Native America (1783-1924).
Trump’s election was also boosted by false promises of peace, with recent war veterans delivering critical votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But Trump quickly surrounded himself with generals and neocons, escalated the wars in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, and has fully backed the Saudi-led war in Yemen. His hawkish advisers have so far ensured that any US steps toward peace in Syria, Afghanistan or Korea remain symbolic, while US efforts to destabilize Iran and Venezuela threaten the world with new wars. Trump’s complaint, “We don’t win any more,” echoes through his presidency, ominously suggesting that he’s still looking for a war he can “win.”
While we can’t guarantee that candidates will stick to their campaign promises, it is important to look at this new crop of presidential candidates and examine their views – and, when possible, voting records – on issues of war and peace. What prospects for peace might each of them bring to the White House?…