Opinion: The Great Drain — A Pessimistic View of America’s Wartime Legacy

MATTHEW SCHWEITZER – The American-led wars in the Middle East were a waste.

UNCLE SAM must have been an avid comic-book reader. Especially of Superman books. Indeed, United States foreign policy has often been based on the idea that this nation is obligated, and has the right, to preserve, just like Superman, “Global truth, justice, and the American way.” The United States has practiced a form of ‘Superman Diplomacy’ for over one-hundred years. Countless nations have attempted to project their own ideals on others. None remain. Except the United States. Just as nations before, America’s might is, according to Michael Mandelbaum in Foreign Affairs, “Waning…because we just have too much of it.”

The country may finally have crossed the proverbial ‘bridge too far,’ reached the point at which her efforts in the Middle East squander its large, but decreasing resources in pursuit of what Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy Review claimed was “an impossible goal of Mideast peace.” The war in Iraq has been America’s kryptonite. The United States waged a war on terror that has largely failed, leading skeptic to bemoan that we “lost the peace.” America’s operations in Iraq proved exceedingly wasteful: a drain into which American dollars flowed, mission goals filtered, popular opinion was lost along with many American lives, and most alarmingly, the government’s power to wage war in the future permanently disappeared.

The United States wasted its resources, not on a mission that did not have good intentions, but rather, a mission that failed. Defined, wasting resources means that material  has been used, but the goal has not been achieved; the material “goes to waste.” It has not, as intended, been a means to an end, just a means to nothing.

Unfortunately, the United States’ commitment to her mission in the Mideast epitomizesd this distinction. During the conflict, Stephen Biddle reported in Foreign Affairs that “We need[ed] to rethink our mission goals. We have attempted democracy, and it [has] not worked….Now many Americans are skeptical whether a stable Iraq is even possible.” We did not meet our goals in Iraq; indeed, the country now teeters on the edge of another autocracy. We wasted our resources there. Evidence to back up this bold statement can be categorized into three general categories: money, public support, and the government’s ability to wage war in the future, or power.


Consider the copious amounts of capital the United States spent funding the floundering Iraq War and it becomes clear that the money was a means to no end; the conclusion is shaky, at best. High costs for waging war are not uncommon in American history, but what made the defense spending in Iraq so alarming was the fact that even economists who worked in the Bush Administration could not have predicted how wildly the spending, as Lawrence B. Lindsey wrote for CNN Money Magazine, “Got out of hand.” Politicians did not predict the war’s massive length, the longest in American history, prior to approving spending in 2001 and 2003 for Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. And while it was the widely held belief that any war was good for the United States economy, as it had been in the past, like World War II and the end of the Great Depression, Grier argues that the United States was involved too long, and given the economic downturn in late 2007, “Simply could not afford to go on like it had been.”

Ultimately, in economic terms, to determine the worth of the war, and thus justify draining resources into it, Lindsey, Grier, and countless others argue that it is imperative to look at the value of operations; how much was the United States getting for each dollar? What would have happened if America had abstained from combat? The answer is discouraging. Lindsey writes, “The alternatives [to war] were not that bad. It was not as if the Middle East power-players would all have been sitting around a campfire plotting ‘death to America.’”

Popular Support and Loss of Life

In addition to monetary concerns, there are other ways to classify an unnecessary waste of resources on a war; popular support for the conflict above all is one of the most important elements to consider when determining if a military operation was a necessity or a waste. In a nation where the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, it is crucial to garner as much support for lengthy combat operations as possible. If an administration squanders this most crucial of its resources — public support — it has lost more than it can reasonably regain.

Popular opinion of a war is closely tied to two linked factors, the amount of soldiers killed fighting and the war’s “value”; because the death toll in the War on Terror surpassed all previous estimates, and the war’s “value” was not considered great, views of the war were repeatedly pessimistic. In fact, a survey conducted by the Washington Post in late 2005 indicated that at the time, over 61% of Americans wanted to pull out of the Middle East; that number has only grown in recent years, according to John Mueller in Foreign Affairs. Perhaps a major reason behind Barack Obama’s presidential success in 2008 was because of his anti-war stance, which has just recently come to fruition.

Public support for the war, according to Mueller, can be explained by a “simple association: as American casualties mount, support decreases.” Mueller calls this pattern the “Iraq Syndrome,” referring to the plummeting public opinion of the war in accordance with the death toll. During combat operations in Iraq, after a series of costly months between 2004 and 2005, when the death rate of American soldiers hovered at 200 to 300 men and women killed per month, public support for the War in Iraq fell eight percentage points. At the worst part of the war, near its conclusion over 76 percent of Americans thought the War on Terror was going badly.

The reasons why Americans lost faith in the war were disconcerting. As Mueller argued, popular support fluctuated as the death toll increased. And for the most part, this idea was true. However, building upon Mueller’s theory, in his 2006 article for Foreign Affairs, Christopher Gelpi claimed that not only was popular support hinged on rising or falling death rates, but also on the course of the war itself: “If we are winning,” wrote Gelpi, “casualties will be tolerated.”

Popular support for large-scale American military operations has drained away, hampering the ability of the US Government to conduct similar operations in the future: a serious handicap.

Ability to Wage War in the Future

Following the Vietnam War, wrote Mueller, the American population lost faith in American policymakers and their ability to wage an effective war. Because recent administrations squandered popular support for the war, an important resource, the failure in the Middle East will have ramifications down the line. After the Vietnam debacle the American government could not find support for major operations until Desert Storm in 1996, although plenty of opportunity had presented itself.

Today, politicians know that attempting to wage another war against another perceived threat, no matter how valid that threat may be, would be fatal to their elected positions. Nobody wants to risk putting their “head on the chopping block” to propose a war that may fail, as The Economist implies, in such “epic proportions” as the War in Iraq.” While the ability to wage future war may not seem like a resource, it must be remembered that security is an offshoot of power. In a world where global terrorism is on the rise, the power to keep the nation’s global interests secure is a resource we could not afford to have wasted.

The Iraq War was a conflict that, while perhaps started with good intentions, deviated away from its initial goals, and wasted the US’ most valuable assets. America did not win, but she learned a lesson that, at least for now, is far more important than any victory: that strategic defeat is admissible, but only if we come to accept it before we bleed white. Without a doubt, Americans must understand that Superman will not always be able to save them from the greatest enemy: a stubborn, unknowingly masochistic self.


MATTHEW SCHWEITZER is the founding editor of The Post-War Watch, and is currently a first-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where he is the Dean’s Scholar and a Research Assistant in the History Department. His writing has appeared in The Concord Review and the Small Wars Journal.

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