Our 'Forgotten' and Invisible Wars
This is what happens when you have an imperial foreign policy that is almost completely lacking in democratic accountability.
Paul Poast says that Syria has become the “forgotten war” for Americans:
That the war in Syria has become the “forgotten war” points to a more disturbing trend in U.S. foreign policy: The United States is so engaged in wars and interventions around the world that a conflict involving the U.S. military that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians does not even register with the American public anymore. Perhaps this is the price of playing such a paramount global role and of being the “indispensable nation”—that a nation is involved in so many conflicts, it can forget one of them.
Poast is right that Americans pay little or no attention to Syria or U.S. forces still involved in hostilities there, but rather than being forgotten it would be more accurate to say that most Americans never knew much about the U.S. role in Syria in the first place. “Forgotten” wars are usually forgotten after they have ended, but it is something else when most of the public is unaware of an ongoing one. This is not so much a forgotten war as it is an invisible one, at least as far as most Americans are concerned. This is not unique to the Syrian case, but has become typical of how the U.S. fights the “war on terror.” It is not just out of the public eye, but most people in government are also happily oblivious to the nature and extent of U.S. involvement. The only time anyone notices is when something goes wrong and Americans are injured or killed. That points to multiple failures in our political system and our news reporting.
The American people have never been asked through their representatives in Congress whether they approved of sending U.S. forces into Syria. The only time when the question of direct military intervention came up before Congress in 2013, the public overwhelmingly opposed using force, and the Obama administration learned from that episode that it was better not to ask for permission. There has been scant oversight of U.S. operations in Syria, and there has never been a proper debate or vote authorizing that presence, so how would most Americans have heard about what their government is doing in Syria? When did they have ever have the opportunity to weigh in one way or the other? The trouble is not just that the U.S. is “so engaged in wars and interventions around the world,” but that it is engaged in these wars and interventions without the public’s knowledge or consent.
U.S. support for anti-government rebels in Syria was initially covert, and then gradually became more public, but because it did not yet directly involve U.S. forces in combat it mostly stayed under the radar. Once the U.S. started fighting its war on ISIS, Obama didn’t bother to ask Congress for authorization and just asserted that he had the authority to do this and Congress, as usual, acquiesced to this illegal war. In the absence of a debate or any organized opposition in Congress, the U.S. just goes to war whenever the president decides it will, and this kind of presidential war has now become so routine that it encounters very little resistance.
Trump illegally launched a couple salvoes of missiles at Syrian government installations in 2017 and 2018, much to the delight of the Blob in Washington, but these actions were brief enough that they hardly gave anyone time to think about them. The main fighting against ISIS ended years ago, but the official goal of achieving their “enduring defeat” guarantees that the U.S. mission will continue indefinitely. Fast forward to today and you have a nominally “counter-ISIS” mission with a small contingent of troops that almost no one in Washington talks or thinks about except when they are coming under attack.
U.S. involvement in Syria barely registers inside the government, so it is no surprise that the public is even less attentive. Media coverage, or rather lack thereof, ensures that it stays that way. The U.S. has been waging illegal war in Syria for so long that very few people even question it, and even when someone does question it the public doesn’t hear those questions.
We could point to Somalia as another example of this: the U.S. has been engaged in hostilities with the enemies of the Somali government for 15 years, but if you asked most Americans why U.S. forces are fighting in Somalia I suspect they would have no idea and would be surprised that the U.S. is at war there. Because the government believes that military action in Somalia is covered by the 2001 AUMF, they see no need for a debate or a new authorization despite the fact that the group the U.S. is fighting there had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, didn’t exist when those attacks occurred, and does not really threaten the United States. The “wars and interventions around the world” are not only numerous and mostly invisible to the public, but they also have vanishingly little to do with the security of the United States. This is what happens when you have an imperial foreign policy that is almost completely lacking in democratic accountability: endless wars that are justified as “self-defense” and have nothing to do with defending the country.