Following a military operation, its leaders and participants take stock of their performance and the lessons from their successes and failures. These after-action reviews are of vital importance to an organization where life and death hangs on even the smallest decisions, so such debriefings are serious events no matter the size or scope of the mission. The findings generated can be translated into life-saving information for use days, months, or even decades in the future.
The civilian and political leaders, who in America are ultimately responsible for our national security, undertake reviews as well through mechanisms like congressional hearings and legislative debate. These reviews are conducted through a different lens, with greater focus on strategic goals, public perception, and political consequences. Such oversight can — and should — influence the trajectory of a military campaign far more than military actions can themselves.
Over the past two decades, reviews have been conducted by civilian and political leaders as public opinion soured toward the increasingly enduring and violent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the lessons that they seemed to have taken away are starkly different and darker than one might imagine, and it has enabled nothing less than a full-scale fleecing of the American people on what the military is being asked to do in their name.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama seized upon public frustration in 2008 as he harangued Republican leaders for underestimating the complexity of the fight in Iraq and miring our military in that region at astronomical costs.
During President Obama’s administration, however, the U.S. military not only remained in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also engaged in significant activities in Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Yemen, and other global hot spots, like Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Using the lessons learned about public sentiments toward protracted military action, our leaders crafted these conflicts to stay below the radar through the use of Special Operations Forces, drone strikes, and “train and assist” initiatives with the most expedient local forces available.
These tactics had an agreeable effect for their principals. With the exception of instances like the Benghazi attack or the killing of Osama bin Laden, American military activity was able to stay further out of the spotlight than the more conventional operations of the George W. Bush administration. The casualty rates decreased and relatively fewer service members were deployed, which helps mask the fact that military spending is not decreasing correspondingly.
The public concern about involvement in the Middle East was still there, as evidenced by the overwhelming opposition to strikes against Syria’s Bashir Assad in 2013, but for the most part it had been successfully defanged as a political obstacle. In Syria, for example, after the public rejection of proposed airstrikes, tactics were merely shifted to a billion dollar clandestine operation that armed rebel groups against the strongman. The public relations problem was solved by blinding the public.
President Donald Trump ended the CIA program in Syria in 2017 after the evidence of its failure became too overwhelming to ignore, but the overall strategy remains. There is perhaps no better illustration of this deceptive approach to defense policy than our involvement in the Yemeni civil war since 2014.
Sectarian factions have been warring against each other — not against any Americans — in that Arabian Peninsula “country” long before its modern inception, yet the United States began using the fig leaf of the Global War on Terrorism in recent years to support our Saudi allies there in their quest for regional influence. With Iranian-aligned rebels squaring off against Al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, the U.S. literally has no dog in the fight, but our military and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate intervention has poured millions of taxpayer dollars into fueling the most desperate humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.
Yet after three years this has elicited barely a raised eyebrow in Congress, with the handful of concerned members soundly defeated in any attempts to force debate.
How can this be possible in a constitutional republic? Because the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have been learned: To operate in the open is to incur significant political risk, but if you close the door and stay off the books, you can fleece the public and operate with impunity. And with the public largely unaware, there is little incentive for political leaders to act.
There could be an opportunity to stop this cycle once the Yemen issue is forced into congressional deliberations again, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to raise awareness and force the issue into the open.
Robert Moore is a policy adviser for Defense Priorities. He has spent nearly a decade working defense and foreign policy issues on Capitol Hill. He most recently served as the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He previously worked as part of Sen. Jim DeMint’s national security team and for Rep. Sue Myrick.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.