A growing number of Americans grapple with a profound dilemma. This dilemma stems from our recent and painful history of interventions gone awry, and outcomes that diverged sharply from the intended goals. The conversation regarding the reasons for our current decline in military recruitment numbers, combined with Americans' increasing isolationism, should include more than just the scourge of "wokeism." We must scrutinize our failures, take the important lessons learned, and hold failed leaders accountable.
The scars from the Iraq War run deep in the American psyche. A war initiated under the pretense of eliminating weapons of mass destruction ultimately transformed Iraq into an Iranian satellite. The toll in blood and treasure was staggering. Our nation, me included, realized that the promised liberation had instead sown chaos and instability.
Similarly, the two-decade-long engagement in Afghanistan aimed to oust the Taliban and establish a stable government. Despite immense investments, our chaotic withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government and its armed forces, has raised questions about the efficacy of such prolonged wars when we have such fickle political leadership. Skepticism has taken root, with many Americans questioning the wisdom of sacrificing lives and resources for outcomes that seem elusive at best.
American reluctance to engage in wars is rooted in a distrust of political and military leadership, rather than a doubt in the military's capabilities. This skepticism is fueled by the observation that, despite the military's ability to achieve success, political decisions and a lack of long-term commitment often undermine these efforts. The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, where years of sacrifice and significant casualties ultimately led to withdrawal and diminished any chance of lasting success, exemplify this concern. People question why they should support wars when leadership decisions may negate the potential for enduring achievements.
One glaring issue is the short attention span exhibited on the global stage. While adversaries plan and act in terms of decades and generations, American foreign policy often succumbs to the volatility of short-term political cycles. The absence of a cohesive, long-term strategy that spans administrations weakens the nation's position, allowing adversaries to exploit the inherent instability in U.S. foreign policy.
Furthermore, the demonization and alienation of potential military recruits exacerbate the problem. How can a government expect the public to rally behind its wars when it criticizes and ostracizes those who bear the burden of fighting? Americans want to win, and this desire for victory is palpable not only on the battlefield but also in the hearts of those considering military service. Yet, the disconnect between the government's strategic failures and the aspirations of potential recruits creates an insurmountable gap.
A successful military requires the trust and support of its citizens, and this trust erodes when the government fails to appreciate the sacrifices made by the men and women in uniform. The burden of entering an arena where victory seems elusive becomes a heavy deterrent for those considering military service. Recruiters face an uphill battle, attempting to sell a vision of success when recent history is marred by missteps and questionable outcomes.
Equally troubling is the lack of accountability for failure. While soldiers face the consequences of failed missions, higher-ranking officials often escape scrutiny. Generals and admirals who preside over misguided campaigns receive a pass for their failures, fostering a culture of impunity that only perpetuates strategic missteps.
The concept of deterrence, once a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, has lost its effectiveness. Simply restoring deterrence is not tantamount to destroying the enemy; this requires a fundamental shift in strategic thinking.
In conclusion, the reluctance of many Americans to join the military and support further engagement in global conflicts doesn't arise from a misguided sympathy for foreign adversaries or a desire for isolation. Instead, it is a response to decades of strategic failures, misguided interventions, and a lack of accountability. Rebuilding trust in the government's ability to conduct successful military campaigns demands true introspection and accountability. Only then can the United States truly earn the support of its citizens and regain its standing as a global leader.
Simone Ledeen is an accomplished national security professional with expertise spanning defense policy, intelligence, counterterrorism, counter threat finance, and emerging technologies. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, Ms. Ledeen was responsible for US defense policy for Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. She strengthened key U.S. defense relationships through close collaboration with foreign counterparts and oversaw the development and implementation of critical policies and initiatives including in counterterrorism, information operations, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies. Ms. Ledeen advises several venture capital and early-stage defense technology firms. Previously, Ms. Ledeen held various leadership roles across the U.S. Government, executing complex operations overseas and spearheading initiatives to counter extremist threats. She received her MBA from Bocconi University and her B.A. from Brandeis University.