Veterans and the Public Agree: U.S. Foreign Policy Isn’t Working
Albert Einstein is almost certainly not to be credited with the cliched definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But what the quote lacks in prestigious origin (not to mention medical precision), it makes up for in discouraging accuracy as a descriptor of Washington’s post-Cold War approach to foreign affairs, particularly post-9/11.
By this measure, American veterans and the public more broadly are far more sensible, as a new poll commissioned by RealClearPolitics (RCP) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) reveals. The survey finds significant agreement between these two groups in three key areas, which taken together show a cross-partisan movement toward realism and restraint that demands a hearing in the halls of power.
First, veterans and the public are not convinced post-9/11 foreign policy made us more secure. Majorities of both groups say the past two decades of foreign policy have not made the United States or the world safer—in fact, a plurality of veterans and Americans, in general, believe these years of unending, expansive overseas intervention have made us less safe.
Specifically, 71 percent of veterans and the public alike believe the terrorist threat has increased over that period, a perception that matches what we know about the real potential of ill-considered military interventions to exacerbate regional tensions and provoke retaliation. Washington may refuse to notice these unintended consequences, but the rest of the country has not.
Along the same lines, neither group is enthusiastic about expanding the U.S. military presence abroad: 52 percent of veterans and 60 percent of the general population do not think this is a route to more security. Perhaps U.S. taxpayers understand the diminishing returns from the ever-growing bill America pays to defend our wealthy allies.
About the prospects of invading North Korea, poll respondents were particularly pessimistic, with just 33 percent of veterans and 20 percent of the public saying it could make us safer.
Second, veterans and the public are not happy with how the military is managed. Fiscal responsibility, treatment of servicemembers, transparency, and global footprint alike are the primary sources of discontent. More than three in four veterans and members of the general population agree waste is a problem in military spending. Few in either group are confident in the medical care veterans receive or in the public’s understanding of the toll of military service.
Majorities of both groups were caught by surprise upon learning, thanks to tragedy, that the U.S. has a nearly 1,000-troop presence in Niger. Discovery of that commitment no doubt contributes to the widespread belief that our military is overextended (including in many places with no direct connection to American security)—the inevitable result of Washington’s failed but persistent attempts to use external military meddling to micromanage other nations’ internal political problems.
Third, veterans and the public do not want the executive branch waging war without end. Three in four members of both groups say “the president should have to get Congressional authorization before committing U.S. military intervention in a country that did not attack the United States or Americans,” a categorical rejection of the unaccountable status quo of executive war-making.
Similarly, at least three-quarters of veterans and the broader population agree no foreign intervention should begin without an exit strategy. As CKI’s vice president Will Ruger, a Naval reserve officer, explained to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Daily, these numbers show “a real disconnect” between the groups polled and “Washington elites who are pursuing this status quo policy that has gone from Bush to Obama and now Trump.” The American people are “asking for different answers,” Ruger continued. “Over 70 percent think there are more terrorists today than before, and they say, ‘Well, why were we in Iraq? Why were we doing nation-building projects in Afghanistan? Why did we fight in Libya?’”
The most important thing now is to ensure we are not asking those same questions about interventions in different nations (or, perhaps worse yet, the same ones) another two decades from now. With poll data like this available, for Washington to maintain the same pattern of reckless, counterproductive interventionism would be a betrayal of veterans and the public both. Americans want an effective foreign policy that protects vital interests at an affordable cost—, something the status quo simply does not offer.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.