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The New Language of Forever War-Making

The post-9/11 consensus is crumbling, so America’s hawks are inventing fresh rhetoric to justify imperialist disasters.

A U.S. Marine takes a break in southern Afghanistan in 2009.

“History, unfortunately, is a forever war,” according to Clifford D. May and Bradley Bowman, who seem never to have encountered a war they don’t like. This faux profundity comes midway through an essay in a collection published earlier this week by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank notorious for lobbying for war against Iran. If a quote like that one didn’t give the game away, then the title of the publication will: “Defending Forward: Securing America by Projecting Military Power Abroad.

Don’t be fooled by the oxymoronic title: The overall thrust of this 116-page, clinically bloodthirsty document, which brings together hawkish chin-scratchers largely from the right wing of American political life, is to articulate a remarkable appetite for continued American war-making overseas. Invoking the usual array of bogeymen—Iran, North Korea, jihadist terrorists, along with the “revisionist powers” China and Russia—one section’s introduction warns that “some Americans are tempted to restrain American power abroad—infatuated with the superficially appealing hope that if the U.S. withdraws, threats will subside and not follow Americans home.”

Just don’t call it war. That is the purpose of “Defending Forward”: to contort the English language to convince a war-weary public that there is no alternative but to continue the status quo of “forward defense-in-depth military deployments,” as Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary, euphemistically calls them. But the FDD publication succeeds only in reminding us that, after 19 years of a catastrophic, immoral, illegal war on terror, America’s hawks are simply out of answers.

Instead of justifying continued American military campaigns overseas, the report’s authors fearmonger about the consequences of not staying, of not fighting more. Instead of articulating a new, positive vision for America’s role in the world, one based on peaceful diplomacy and multilateralism against the existential threat of climate change, they fall back on tired Cold War–era bromides about preserving the post–World War II order and stymieing rogue actors. What they don’t realize is that the United States long ago became the world’s most volatile rogue actor.

Peace is rarely discussed as a worthwhile goal in “Defending Forward.” Its authors speak more in the vapid America-can-do-no-wrong dialect of a CNN panel. In the eyes of the FDD and its contributors, perpetual war is practically a natural human condition, one that helps ensure American strategic interests. “More than ever, Americans must go abroad to remain secure at home,” Panetta writes in the volume’s introduction. “Such a view is neither a right nor left policy—it is smart policy informed by a modern history of devastating wars, hard lessons from more recent conflicts, and current realities.”

Panetta is right, in a sense: George W. Bush’s proclamation that we must fight terrorists “over there” so we don’t have to face them over here has long been the post-9/11 bipartisan consensus. Only in recent years have serious cracks formed in that consensus, as more conservatives join the left in their weariness with America’s forever wars.

The report seems to be a response to a recent package by Foreign Affairs titled “Come Home America,” and to the work of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a newish think tank that preaches for restraint in foreign policy and demilitarizing American diplomacy. They reflect a slow but important shift underway: Some members of the foreign policy establishment are beginning to question the moral and strategic failures of the war on terror—much to the horror of armchair hawks, national security officials, and holders of think tank sinecures subsidized by Gulf oil sheikhdoms and military contractors.

Panetta and his cohort are hoping a rhetorical show of force—defending forward in prose, if you will—might somehow stop this shift in its tracks. But it’s not clear whom the FDD report—which is rather pretentiously referred to as a “monograph”—aims to convince. At times, the authors seem to presume a like-minded readership, as terms like forever war and endless wars—both now in common usage—are derided with scare quotes. At others, they merely rename traditional empire-building and military interventionism: Decades-long overseas military deployments are referred to as “forward-positioned” engagements or part of a “forward defense” the country must maintain. And anyone who believes otherwise is simultaneously naïve and arrogant.

Advocating a stop to endless wars “demonstrates stunning ignorance,” write May and Bowman, turning to a Churchill quote for proof (“The story of the human race is war”). “No society in human history has permanently ended or escaped war by retreating and declaring conflicts over,” they add. “Those who theorize that the outcome will be different in the 21st century declare themselves proponents of ‘responsible statecraft.’”

You might say that the Quincy Institute, and the ascendant, skeptical attitude toward American power it represents, is living rent-free in FDD’s head. The institute is mentioned at least a dozen times in the document. In an aside, FDD’s CEO Mark Dubowitz and its senior vice president for research, Jonathan Schanzer, cavil that the institute is “erroneously named for former President John Quincy Adams owing to a fundamental misreading of his thinking and its applicability to 21st-century superpower affairs.” Dubowitz, who also railed against the Quincy Institute on Twitter this week, compares people advocating military restraint to isolationists, who then somehow are akin to Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. Thus, by the analyst’s clumsy use of the transitive property, the Quincy Institute and its fellow travelers are Nazi sympathizers.

The more you read of “Defending Forward,” the less sense it makes. For the hard-liners, Quincy Institute types are isolationists or appeasers. For others, like H.R. McMaster, another contributor to the FDD report, they are “retrenchers,” guilty of “excessive pessimism.” While softer in his language than some of the other writers, McMaster is no less concerned. “Retrenchers could also result in a failure to deter aggression and prevent a disastrous war,” says McMaster. Yes, if we’re not careful, we may end up in a 20-year war that devastates a nation.

A certain disastrous, interminable American war haunts these writers, but it’s not the one you’d think: Panetta and McMaster diagnose their skeptics with Vietnam syndrome, a psychic and societal malady that tends to produce a dim view of American war-making. This “has saddled American strategic thinking for decades,” Panetta laments. McMaster attributes it to a “simplistic but widely held belief” that the Vietnam War “had been unjustified and unwinnable.”

If only Vietnam syndrome were a real affliction, it might have saved us from two more protracted, unwinnable wars. Hundreds of thousands of lives would not have been lost. America’s true malady is quite the opposite: We don’t learn from our imperialistic misadventures. Reading “Defending Forward,” one cannot help but fear that 20 years hence, the foreign policy elites of the day—safely ensconced in think tanks, newspaper op-ed boards, military contractors, Foggy Bottom, and the E-ring of the Pentagon—will still be making the case for forever war. And they will accuse their critics of suffering from “Afghanistan syndrome.”