How Biden Can Transform America’s Foreign Policy

How Biden Can Transform America’s Foreign
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Failed wars have
bookended President Biden’s political career. He was first elected to the U.S.
Senate in 1972, when the futility and misguidedness of our war in Vietnam were
clear. He ran as an opponent of the war but balked at full-throated
condemnation, saying, “I wasn’t against the war for moral reasons; I just
thought it was a stupid policy.”

In 2021—the year Biden
became president—America continues to fight a different but equally
self-defeating conflict: the “war on terror.” As chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, in 2002, Biden
played a key role in the American response to 9/11, and voted
the invasion of Iraq.
Since then, Biden has acknowledged that his vote for the war
was a “mistake” and maintains that he
was misled by President George W. Bush.

Biden’s five deferments from service during Vietnam insulated him from
directly experiencing the inhumanity of war. As veterans of the Vietnam and
Afghanistan conflicts, we hope that he will learn from history and exhibit
better judgment as president and commander in chief than he has in the past,
and put an end to a war that the majority of veterans believe has never been worth fighting.

This will require
a dramatic transformation of America’s foreign policy. Fortunately, Biden has
shown some indications that he is ready to take the brave steps that are
needed. In
his first major foreign policy speech on February 4, he announced that he would
end support for political violence in Yemen, rebuild
international alliances, and stiffen America’s response to
Russian aggression. Furthermore, the Biden administration is confronting
racial and political extremism in the military
and aims to close
Guantánamo Bay prison, where prisoners, once targets of a
government-sanctioned torture program, remain subject to indefinite detention
without trial.

We commend these changes.

Absent from this discussion, however, has been a
detailed plan to end the failed war on terror or curtail America’s excessive
military spending. Moreover, Biden was not clear about what he meant by “America
is back.”
We hope this does not merely imply a foreign policy Groundhog Day, where America
will get four more years of war.

From our hard-won
experiences in two disastrous foreign wars, we offer five principles that, we
believe, can save our country from repeating the same mistakes for a third

1. Reassert the core constitutional
premise that Congress, not the president, decides whether America goes to war.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.
However, since 1942, Congress has eschewed all responsibility for war,
delegating it to the executive branch. For almost a century, the United States has replaced
legal declaration of war with “authorization to use military force,” or AUMF,
with predictably disastrous results. Although originally intended to be narrow in scope, AUMFs have become bloated vehicles for
sweeping presidential authority, facilitating political violence unbounded by
constraints of geography or timeline.

To redress the
resulting imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches of
government, President Biden should push for the repeal of the existing AUMFs
and reaffirm Congress’s constitutional war powers. More boldly, any future
declarations of war should include a “sunset clause,” forcing Congress annually
to reconsider and reaffirm the decision to prolong conflict, giving the
American people the democratic recourse to fire representatives who vote the
wrong way.

This step would
help to protect our servicemen and women from having their service misused by
shifting the default American posture, which favors extending war through
indecision and sheer inertia.

Biden seems to be
moving in the right direction on this issue. Earlier this month it was reported
that the administration is seeking to repeal the AUMFs that have prolonged the war on terror and replace them with a “narrow and specific framework” for
fighting terrorist threats.

2. America must stop waging foreign wars
of aggression—especially when they lack a coherent strategy.

In an
uncanny case of wartime déjà vu, both the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers showed that American military and
civilian leadership were misleading the American public for years and hiding
humiliating strategic failure with rosy pronouncements of progress. Both wars were
not only morally bankrupt in their execution but also unwinnable. And the
military was complicit in hiding unmistakable evidence of their futility.  

In both wars,
policymakers and military leaders arrogantly assumed that American military
might was irresistible, while sacrificing lives and resources to occupy ground
that had no strategic value and was quickly abandoned. Vietnam’s Hill 881
North, near Khe Sanh, was assaulted by Marines three times in 1967 and 1968
with heavy casualties but was occupied for a total of only four days. Khe Sanh
Combat Base itself was abandoned and blasted out of existence by American
engineers shortly after almost 300 Marines lost their lives and 2,500 more were
wounded to hold it against relentless North Vietnamese Army artillery and
rocket attacks between January and April 1968.

In Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Erik was part of a
mission nicknamed “Operation Highway Babysitter,” in which the infantry secured
the road, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry—all so that
the infantry could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could
resupply the infantry.

Worse, whenever a road was destroyed—since protecting all
the roads, all the time, was impossible—American forces would pay Afghan
construction companies to rebuild it; in turn, the construction company would
often pay a protection tribute to the Taliban; then the Taliban would buy
more bomb-making materials to destroy the road—and U.S. vehicles.

We were, indirectly but also quite literally, funding the
Taliban to kill us.

3. America must stop dehumanizing
people “on the other side.”

As violence
escalates and comrades are killed in conflict, all wars breed hatred of the
other side. However, willful miseducation and racist indoctrination led
directly to massive mistreatment, injury, and death of civilians in Vietnam,
Iraq, and Afghanistan. The racist slurs may have evolved over the decades,
but the attendant contempt and dehumanization are the same: American troops
would never be permitted to treat Americans the way they treat their supposed

In Vietnam, Ted was taught that “Orientals”
have less regard for human life than we do. In Afghanistan, Erik received some advice from a
veteran noncommissioned officer: “All these people from Muslim countries—all
they understand is force. You haven’t been there yet, sir, but you’ll see.
Stubborn motherfuckers are too stupid for anything else.” He also said, “You
can’t treat them like people because they’re not.”

“We have shot an amazing number of people,” said
General Stanley McChrystal, the former American and NATO commander in
Afghanistan, “but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” This
outcome is inevitable in a counterinsurgency where soldiers are caught up in slippery-slope
thinking: “Since the enemy is always evil, and every Afghan is sort of the enemy, then every Afghan is sort of evil.” If McChrystal’s “insurgent
is correct—that for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new
enemies—then America’s terrorism eradication strategy promises only
never-ending war. 

Marine Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes says, “I
didn’t kill people, sons, brothers, fathers. I killed ‘Crispy Critters.’” To
look through the optic of your assault rifle and take aim at another person—to
make others “killable,” to pretend that “they deserve it”—ensures that peace and
justice will never be achieved. 

4. Vigorously prosecute war

There is no such thing as
war without war crimes.

Thousands of Vietnamese were forcibly
removed from their ancestral villages to refugee camps. Many others did not
have that luxury. An Americal Division platoon massacred 500 mostly women, children, and old
people at My Lai in March 1968. The U.S. established extensive “free-fire
zones,” in which troops were encouraged, even ordered, to “shoot
anything that moves.” The U.S. military
leadership and government largely covered up or excused these atrocities. As a “rear-echelon motherfucker,”
Ted did not have much opportunity to inflict serious physical harm but admits “laughing to see the
terrified faces below when, on helicopter rides, we strafed (without shooting) Vietnamese working in their
rice fields.”

soldiers in Vietnam and Afghanistan kept finger bones, leg bones, teeth, ears, and
skulls as sick war trophies. The U.S. Army kept images of soldiers smiling,
posing over murdered civilians, one a 15-year old boy, under “lock and key out of fear it
could result in a scandal even greater than Abu Ghraib.”  

Erik was keenly aware of war crimes that occurred
during his deployment to Afghanistan. The Stryker unit that replaced him at FOB Ramrod was
responsible for a series of despicable civilian murders. On September 9, 2010, CNN reported, “According to the military
documents, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and four other soldiers were involved in
throwing grenades at civilians and then shooting them in separate incidents.
Three Afghan men died.”

Erik and his
platoon witnessed a pair of OH-58 Kiowa helicopters shoot up a series of Afghan
homes, without having positive identification on weapons—a requirement in
the military’s rules of engagement—resulting in visual confirmation of dead
civilians. Rather than confronting this reality, Erik’s unit falsified reports,
annotating these deaths as “Unknown.” It is unclear how many
hundreds—or thousands, or tens of thousands—of similar incidents took place.

We hope that President Biden’s
announcement, in his first week, of a Defense Department inquiry into war crimes during
the war on terror presages stricter enforcement of the international rules of
war, greater transparency regarding criminal acts, and severe punishment of

5. Reallocate
public dollars to projects with higher return on investment.

How do you tally up the true cost of war? Perhaps we
consider the number of dead, injured, or traumatized: for Vietnam, this meant
the death of two million Vietnamese civilians; 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers; 250,000
South Vietnamese soldiers; and 58,000 U.S. servicemen. The war on terror has brought
the death of more
than one hundred 9/11s’ worth of civilians and more than
7,000 U.S. troops. In both wars,
thousands more suffered grievous physical and psychosocial wounds

However, this simple listing of tragedies does not
capture the full cost, which requires us to consider what might have been
instead. It requires imagining the negative space—the hole in the universe
created by the absence of people—and the substitution of physical pain and disability for health; or of spending trillions to create war debt
instead of putting those funds to better use almost anywhere else.

The war in Vietnam, in 2019 dollars, cost the U.S. $844
billion. For this price tag, the U.S. could have doubled current annual spending for low-income housing for the next 16 years, paid for a
year’s worth of groceries for 100 million U.S. households, or sent a $2,500 stimulus
check to every American.

The war on terror was even more costly. With the $6.4 trillion spent on this war,
America could have paid the $1.6
trillion bill on all student debt in the U.S., provided
an entire year of free health care to every American—$3.5
trillion—and had just enough left over to hire Beyoncé
for a private concert, every day, for the next 2,000 years.

For years, our nation has been spending a multiple of
Afghanistan’s gross domestic product—to protect us from alleged threats from Afghanistan. Why? To fail
at making it a modern democracy? Can we finally agree that this use of funds is

By learning from the conflicts bookending his long
life in politics, President Biden has the golden opportunity to put our country on a new, safer, and more just course in
the world. If he succeeds, the future of American foreign policy would
be filled with real promise, not just false promises.

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