2019 Year in Review

A Decade of No Lessons Learned in U.S. Overseas Intervention

Despite a change in administrations, U.S. foreign policy in the 2010s stayed its wasteful, destructive course.


As this decade began, U.S. armed forces were in year nine of their occupation of Afghanistan. A fresh surge of new U.S. military personnel was sent in by then-President Barack Obama that raised troop levels there to just below 100,000 by August 2010. The estimated expense of the occupation for 2010 was $94 billion, with a cumulative total through the end of that year of $338 billion.

Obama had promised he'd start to reverse his troop surge by July 2011, and it seemed just barely possible that the Nobel Peace Prize winner might actually end a U.S. war in the 2010s.

Instead, not counting 2010, this decade has seen its own cumulative cost of our Afghanistan adventure come in at $690 billion. In 2019, civilian casualties in that tortured nation hit all-time quarterly highs.

The Washington Post this month debuted a series of articles based on piles of documents they obtained via research from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Readers of Reason should not be surprised to learn there was no more winnable military mission once the Taliban government we wanted to punish for sheltering Al Qaeda had been knocked out, which happened within months of the invasion; that our aid did more to line the pockets of corrupt officials and inefficient contractors than it did to meaningfully rebuild a nation; and that official pronouncements regularly oversold progress toward our goals—whether in military strategy, drug eradication, or nation building. We have been writing about those issues since 2010 and 2012.

Although Donald Trump, before becoming president, had regularly said the war was a "big waste" and that we should "come home" immediately, we now have more troops in Afghanistan than there were when he took office. His first full year running U.S. foreign policy saw a record number of bombs dropped on Afghanistan. (One positive difference is he has been willing to directly negotiate with the Taliban, a likely necessary step that was off the table as the decade began.)

Across the globe in the 2010s, under Obama and under Trump, U.S. foreign policy continued to be wastefully aimed at our unquestionable (and insanely expensive) primacy, our dominance of arms sales—sometimes on both sides of conflicts—that enable destruction, and our refusal to learn from mistakes.

Overall annual military spending, for example, has seen another 22 percent increase since 2016, from $611 billion to $750 billion in 2019. Average annual military spending from 2009 to 2016, inflation-adjusted, tended around 17 percent higher than in 2001–2008.

Also in 2010, U.S. forces were in year seven of the Iraq occupation, but a big pullback was beginning: At the start of the year there were 114,000 troops. By year's end there were less than half that: 48,000.

As the Congressional Research Service reported in May, "In late 2017, the DOD [Department of Defense] stopped reporting the number of U.S. military personnel deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of its quarterly manpower reports and in other official releases. These data remain withheld." However, educated media estimates indicate that as the decade winds down, there are 6,000 troops still left in Iraq, and 12,000-13,000 in Afghanistan.

In addition, U.S. forces or materiel were, both as the decade began and as it ends, occupying around 800 bases in 70 countries in pursuit of a foreign policy goal of U.S. primacy, a goal from which our foreign policy establishment has not shifted despite the glaring failures and grim aftereffects of our Middle East interventions, and despite all the allegations that President Donald Trump, commander in chief for the decade's last third, had a less interventionist foreign policy vision.

Despite Obama's drawdowns in the Middle East, he still had nearly 200,000 active duty U.S. military personnel stationed overseas as his administration ended. The Trump administration's most recent figure, minus the secret Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan figures, is 174,000. Adding back in best estimates for those hotspots, America's numerical overseas commitments are pretty much equal from decade end to beginning.

Similarly, and despite Trump's grumbling about cheapskate allies from NATO and elsewhere not holding up their end of our "manage the planet" bargain, our military alliance structure has remained intact as the decade went on, from Asia (where our mutual defense pacts are still in full force and our troop levels remain high) to NATO (where troop deployments and exercises continue to increase, and the U.S. is planning new bases) to Latin America (where Trump's administration toyed with invasion to get our way in Venezuelan domestic politics).

The decade also saw some fresh disasters when it came to our interventionist instincts. In 2011, Obama led a campaign in Libya that killed its dictator while leaving chaos, terror, and instability in its wake. Our absurd dedication to our "alliance" with Saudi Arabia made us complicit in its ongoing—and massively destructive—attacks in Yemen. That effort, begun under Obama, has killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of people while leaving millions at risk of starvation. Trump, despite his grumblings about pointless overseas alliances and interventions, is so dedicated to continuing it that he vetoed an attempt to get him to stop, with nothing whatsoever in terms of U.S. interests for this supposed "America First" president except pleasing the butchers who run our "ally" Saudi Arabia.

Syria also became a new site of active U.S. military efforts this decade, beginning with Obama in 2013 and continuing under Trump, despite some confusing shuffling earlier this year that allowed our NATO ally Turkey to pound and displace their Kurdish foes (and our former allies) but left most our troops still elsewhere in the country or the Middle East as a possible tripwire for future conflict.

Trump's general approach to the Middle East—far from the "America First" reluctance for intervention some of his fans continue to believe in—is summed up well in John Glaser, Christopher A. Prebel, and A. Trevor Thrall's book Fuel to the Fire:

He has maintained an extensive infrastructure of forward-deployed U.S. military assets throughout the region. In his first year as president, he increased the number of U.S. troops in the theater by more than 30 percent; almost 60,000 were deployed there as of De­cember 2018. Overall, the use of force in the region increased massively as Trump loosened the rules of engagement and intensified ongoing bombing campaigns across multiple countries. In 2017, the number of coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria rose by nearly 50 percent compared with the previous year, while civilian deaths rose by an estimated 215 percent. The use of drone strikes has also in­creased markedly

Trump's occasional willingness to buck foreign policy convention has been mostly bad. He backed out of both the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, both moves that make the world more, not less, bellicose and at risk of destructive wars. (Trump does, though, deserve credit for not letting the June Iranian shoot down of a U.S. drone escalate further.)

Military pundits complain about certain overarching changes that have sped up this decade, such as a shift in control over foreign policy from the State Department to the Pentagon (and the CIA). Some complain that no matter which agency is ostensibly in charge, our continued focus on giant ships, fancy planes, and masses of bodies ignores that the future of military conflict is (and should be) all about special forces able to move quickly, and a world where drug lords and billionaires will wage war as much as nations do.

But whether it was Obama or Trump in charge, the 2010s have been a decade of spending money we don't have and wasting lives pursuing goals we can't win. More business as usual for the U.S. foreign policy machine, across administrations and decades.

NEXT: This Bicycle Registration Law Gives Police Yet Another Excuse To Punish Insufficiently Meek Citizens

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  1. When I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, a major reason was her lengthy record of foreign policy wisdom. She was literally the most qualified candidate ever, and would have made a fantastic Commander in Chief. Instead, Russian hacking gave us President Orange Hitler. And his foreign policy has been as disastrous as his domestic policy.


    1. You’re creating some sort of performance art, no?

    2. He’s an alt-righter neo-reactionary trying to mock the libertarian movement for believing natural rights also apply to women, minorities, and non-Americans.

      1. He thinks bananas belong on the wall

        1. Duct-taping my banana onto the wall will cost you $150,000, but it can be done, at least for a little while. Nailing, screwing, bolting, riveting, or welding my banana to the wall? No, THOSE kinds of things are OFF LIMITS!!! They can NOT be had, at ANY price!

      2. Chipper Morning Wood
        December.17.2019 at 4:45 pm
        He’s an alt-righter neo-reactionary trying to mock the libertarian movement for believing natural rights also apply to women, minorities, and non-Americans.

        Eunuch so mad that OBL calls out his reflexively leftist bitch brand of impotent libertarianism.

      3. He’s an run-of-the-mill libertarian trying to mock the batshit insane progressive movement who believe in killing babies, race-baiting, and importing slaves undocumented labour.

        Fixed that for you Chipper

        1. Slaves? We’re ALL tax slaves! But, the illegal sub-humans are even more so, tax slaves, than the Exalted Ones, the native-borns, are, because the Exalted Ones can get back SOME of the money that they pay into Social Security. Illegal sub-humans get NONE of it back.

          See “The Truth About Undocumented Immigrants and Taxes” (in quotes) in your Google search window will take you straight there, hit number one… AKA http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/09/undocumented-immigrants-and-taxes/499604/ For details about us natives mooching off of the taxes of the illegal sub-humans…

          Let’s all mooch, then bitch that the people that support us, are here for us to mooch off of!

          1. Your continued use of fascist language like “sub-human” says a lot about who you are.

            And, no, illegals are not tax slaves because, like all low income earners, they pay far less in taxes than they receive in services from the government. The Atlantic article is false; it’s propaganda. But, then, you like propaganda, because that’s the kind of man you are.

    3. Dear Open Borders Libertarian: Feel free to back up your claim that Hilary was an expert at foreign policy, with ANYTHING.

      She got four people killed in Benghazi, and then she and Obama had Susan Rice lie straight to your face REPEATEDLY that it was about a video tape. She denied that the Benghazi attack was a preplanned military attack, when clearly it was.

      But hey, that’s just small potatoes. She caused Libya to descend into chaos, and it continues to be a failed state which is a breeding ground for terrorists.

      She had Obama cancel the agreement between the USA and Poland for a missile defense site in Poland. That opened the door for Russia to invade Ukraine and steal Crimea, a strategic port for Russian military.

      But, what would I know. So, now tell me all the things she got right….

  2. Trump does, though, deserve credit for not letting the June Iranian shoot down of a U.S. drone escalate further.

    Grading on a curve, he gets a lot of credit. After the ego-stroking he received from the 2017 Shayrat missile strikes and the way he soaks up accolades, the world is fortunate Trump didn’t use that opportunity to attempt to garner more.

    The fear that the Pentagon and foreign policy advisors must instill in presidents over the inevitable falling totally apart of the ME without a strong US military presence must be filled with persuasively devastating PowerPoint presentation slides of a desert in ruin along with a presidential legacy.

    1. Yes, let’s give credit to Trump for showing some restraint in certain situations where a Bush-type wouldn’t hesitate to bomb civilians. But he is no non-interventionist.

      1. And you’re no man, eunuch.
        Neither are you a woman though.
        Nope, just a bitch

  3. of the invasion; that our aid did more to line the pockets of corrupt officials and inefficient contractors than it did to meaningfully rebuild a nation;

    Perhaps it might have been wise for administrations to withhold aid in exchange for some assurances they were going to tackle said corruption.

    1. Is there a phrase, perhaps in Latin, that could be used to describe such an arrangement?

  4. Huh? Military contractors are richer than ever and the military budget is the biggest ever. Looks like they learned a lot.

  5. >>>it seemed just barely possible that the Nobel Peace Prize winner might actually end a U.S. war in the 2010s.

    spit-take and lolz. (D) hearts war too

  6. Obama had promised he’d start to reverse his troop surge by July 2011, it seemed just barely possible that the Nobel Peace Prize winner might actually end a U.S. war in the 2010s.

    Only if you were living in the Bubble of Idiocy, the littoral zone of the country where people projected their own hopes on Obama rather than paying attention to reality.

    Obama ran for office on winning in Afghanistan, and in his first term managed to get more Americans killed in Afghanistan than every other President combined (a record still held even after we add Trump administration deaths to the “other presidents” total). If he’d ended the war without a clear victory (and there was no way that any resolution in Afghanistan can be a clear victory), how would he possibly have explained that? The surge guaranteed the war wouldn’t end under his watch.

    (Incidentally, one might at this point note that Volokh Conspirator David Post, in 2012, said he was voting to re-elect Obama because Obama had gotten us out of Iraq and was getting us out of Afghanistan. Something to remember if you read any of his rants about Trump or impeachment. When it comes to partisan issues, Mr. Post has all the rational judgment of a drunk and concussed squirrel, and all the connection to reality of a commune-dwelling hippie tripping on LSD.)

  7. Maybe we should focus on territorial conquest and resource exploitation.
    If the locals object, we can treat them like US citizens and explain it is just asset forfeiture.

  8. A Decade of No Lessons Learned in U.S. Overseas Intervention
    A decade? I would put it somewhere over a century.

    1. Well, we used to get territorial acquisitions and puppet states out of our imperialism. Now we just get body bags and bills.

  9. Isn’t it just a little bit uncomfortable writing this shit when you literally spent 8 years defending every single overseas intervention by Obama including Libya and then histrionically shrieked for weeks when Trump wound down the illegal executive war in Syria that Obama started? Or is cognitive dissonance just such a natural fucking state of affairs for you that it doesn’t even cause any distress anymore?

    1. ^^^^

  10. Does Doherty even read the news before he writes this stuff? Get a real analyst.

  11. Whatever the logic or rationale these initial engagements ever possibly had was squandered by the insanity of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Policy”.

    “You break it, you own it” is and always was tragic B.S., trapping us in these godforsaken places for a generation attempting “nation-building” where nations don’t exist and where the inhabitants don’t want them. Or us.

    Better if we have to (ever) go in, just go in, break it, leave it, and tell them if they ever f*** with us again, we’ll repeat till they get the point.

  12. It’s all about the same thing it’s always about: control of natural resources e.g oil, poppies, lithium, natural gas, copper.
    The “War on Terror” is a papier-mache curtain hiding the eternal quest for what the Western World runs on.
    Please read this article and others like it, which can be found with a simple search for “real reason U.S. in Afghanistan.”

  13. We should pull all our troops out of Iraq tomorrow.
    Then we should have a national dialog on whether it is in our national interest to fight Taliban/Al Queda “over there instead of over here”.
    If not, bring those troops back to continental U.S.
    Let the natives fight each other without our help.
    Let Iran have the mess. See if they can keep it

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