Losing the Wars

by Andrew Leber

Two decades have passed since the terrorist attacks that ultimately took the lives of 2,605 U.S. citizens and 372 citizens of other nationalities at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on United Airlines Flight 93. This weekend, memorial services across the United States honored the memory of the thousands killed on 9/11, including hundreds of first responders in New York City, and the deaths of thousands of US service-members in the wars that followed.

This weekend also marks a time to reckon with the U.S. foreign policy choices that led to those wars. 

A military campaign against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan quickly transformed into an expansive project of remaking a country that US officials barely understood and made little effort to understand (as documented at length in the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” series). 

We released the furies and then went home.

Stephen Hadley, Fmr. Deputy National Security Advisor, September 16, 2015

The attacks also set the political calculations and machinations in motion that would culminate in the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. A war of choice sent of thousands of U.S. soldiers to the Persian Gulf, removed Saddam Hussein from power, smashed the capabilities of the Iraqi state, and sparked wave upon wave of violence. 

I saw dozens of bodies piled outside the morgue, covered with blue sheets, rotting in the sun. Relatives of the dead and injured sobbed, but the doctors went stoically about their business. “Today is nothing special,” one told me. “We see catastrophes like this every week.”

That evening, I met a group of [Coalition Provisional Authority] staffers for dinner in the palace [i.e. headquarters of the occupation administration]. They talked about the interim constitution that had just been drafted, with its expansive bill of rights. “It’ll be a model for the Middle East,” one said.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) on the U.S. occupation c. 2003

In the name of preventing deaths from political violence at home, the United States has fueled a generation of political violence abroad–some 46,000 civilian deaths and 69,000 national military and police deaths in Afghanistan, at least 185,000 civilian deaths and at least 45,000 national military and police in Iraq (per estimates from the Costs of War Project). 

US air strikes and drone strikes alone have resulted in anywhere from 22,000 to 48,000 civilian deaths in theaters ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen, per the UK-based organization Airwars. Even a more conservative New America estimate suggests hundreds of civilians killed as part of US drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

Emphasizing the decades-long fallout of the 9/11 terror attacks–the death, injury and destruction stirred up thousands of miles away–is a necessary step toward winding down the far-reaching military commitments of the post-9/11 era. Focusing solely on direct US casualties otherwises obscure the ways that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been little short of disastrous for Muslim communities from the Afghan countryside to the LA suburbs. Yet it is far from clear that a fragile coalition centered around skepticism of US military force can extend public opposition to large-scale U.S. military deployments to constraining the less-visible “violence management” of the GWOT.

Discussions of the withdrawal from Afghanistan over the course of this year suggest that, at least at present,  there are sharp limits on public and even elite support for any large-scale, “boots-on-the-ground” military venture in the Middle East Despite a clear gap between more pro-war elite opinion and the general US public, the idea of retaining troops in Afghanistan did not command the kind of broad elite consensus that, say, the invasion of Iraq did in 2002-3. No less a hawk than Jennifer Rubin–who once blogged that President Obama’s “sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those… for his fellow citizens”–has come out in force to defend the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

True, this Spring saw political figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna have emphasized diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and using of foreign aid as a positive incentive (rather than wielding sanctions as a cudgel) to support human rights in Afghanistan. Others have pressed the Biden administration to limit the possibility of future “forever wars” by reigning in an expansive US drone-strike program and enacting stronger Congressional constraints on presidential use-of-force powers writ large.

However, support for the Afghanistan withdrawal has equally reflected a belief in the “smarter” use of US military might. This entails raining death and destruction on terrorist networks (and civilian bystanders) through air wars and drone strikes, while redirecting personnel and material towards more pressing strategic threats” – namely Russia and China. When Fareed Zakaria frames a US commitment to Afghanistan as “imperial overextension,” it his problem seems to be with the overextension, not the imperial presence. 

At the same time, for all the efforts of conservative “restrainers,” the return of a Republican Presidency would almost certainly undo any efforts toward military “restraint.” Despite talk of “Donald the Dove,” the Trump administration maintained US troop commitments abroad and unleashed unprecedented bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, while seemingly wrecking the Iran nuclear deal for good.

A true test of a US anti-war movement is whether it can build public support for further troop drawdowns beyond mass deployments to these two countries. Thus far, recent shifts in US foreign policy thinking are far from sufficient to secure tangible reductions in Defense spending even in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Should efforts to present “great power competition” as a global threat to the United States gain traction, it is not clear that a coalition counseling restraint could forestall the kind of broad public backing that the Bush administration secured for both the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.

In reflecting on the Second World War, the Chicago writer Lee Sandlin once wrote of the war’s memory “trailing off into nothingness and doubt,” and of wars ending “when peace permanently wins out.” Our challenge now lies not only in reminding US society of the costs of endless wars, but also in convincing the US public and its leadership that the United States can one day again be at peace.

Andrew Leber is a PhD Candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewMLeber.

Reparations for Afghanistan: Redefining US “Engagement”

By Trevor Hayes

As America’s 20 year long mission in Afghanistan comes to a close, conversations around the long awaited withdrawal of US forces have centered almost entirely around the binary question of maintaining a US troop presence in the country. This binary conversation – one that reduces “engagement” to military presence – demonstrates the tunnel vision of policymakers and commentators over the past 2 decades. 

To acknowledge the consequences of militaristic adventurism and failed state-building, the United States needs to take reparative action to provide justice for the people of Afghanistan. One of the most direct ways it can do so is by expediting visa processing for Afghans who worked with the US occupation and expanding refugee intake for all those affected by the present and coming conflict. This approach, at least when limited to the first group, appears to already be a focus of the Biden administration. But the people of Afghanistan deserve more.

Continue reading “Reparations for Afghanistan: Redefining US “Engagement””

Global Tax Regime: A Good Start, But We Must Go Further

By Yong Kwon

Following talks spearheaded by the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors agreed to endorse a global minimum tax for corporations of at least 15%. This is a good start. But it is also important to remember that this effort to prevent corporations from spurning their dues to society is only one component of what needs to be done to ensure that the benefits of a globalized economy are shared more equitably with American workers. 

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Ilhan Omar was Right: The Ugly Reality of International “Justice”

By Elizabeth Beavers

In a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Representative Ilhan Omar asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken an obvious question. She first reflected on the fact that the United States opposes International Criminal Court (ICC) probes into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and Palestine because such investigations would include examining US and Israeli actions, respectively. She also noted that neither Israel nor the United States have utilized their domestic justice systems to hold their own officials accountable for these atrocities. And so she posed this query: if both domestic and international courts are unavailable to victims of atrocities in Afghanistan and Palestine – whether committed by Hamas, the Taliban, Israel, or the United States – where are those victims supposed to go for justice? 

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Bringing FTB’s Briefing Booklet to Life

(TLDR: Help fund our briefing booklet to circulate lefty FP ideas in Congress, greater DC, and beyond)

Is a left-wing foreign policy possible? This site is an ongoing project to prove the answer is yes.

Over the past few months, we’ve published a series of policy briefs aimed at building a substantive (but hardly exhaustive) agenda for progressive foreign policymaking. These briefs all aim at reducing the harm that results from “business as usual” US foreign policy and expanding democratic participation and buy-in for US foreign policymaking writ large.

We are thrilled to announce that we will be releasing updated versions of these 9 policy briefs as part of an edited booklet on June 17th, entitled “Foreign Policy is Possible.” It will look something like this:

Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of woodcuts.

We will have some kind of virtual launch event (again on June 17th) – for an invite (probably next week), follow the site by putting in your email to the right (if you don’t already!).

While we have been a labor of love for some time, we are reaching out to ask for your support in publishing in printing physical copies of the booklet. Printed copies will help us get these ideas in front of more eyeballs among activists, analysts, and Congressional staff – we have set up a GoFundMe for this purpose (managed by Andrew Leber).

We know times are difficult, but anything you can spare goes towards:

  • Publication of the booklet as a physical document. We’ve been quoted printing costs (environmentally friend, U.S. printer) of around $1300 for 100 copies – enough to distribute among Congressional offices and peer organizations in left-wing foreign policy spaces
  • Providing a modest honorarium to our authors and designer (specifics tbd, but at least ensuring they can each get a physical copy of the booklet)
  • Secure seed funding towards setting up a system to pay modest compensation for contributions to the Fellow Travelers blog (with whatever funds remain)

And of course, your generosity will not go unnoticed:

  • Donate any amount and you have our undying thanks + high probability one of us buys you a beverage of your choice in-person some day
  • Donate $25 and we will thank you by name (if desired) on the booklet page once it goes live (or update thereafter)
  • Donate $50 and we will mail you a physical copy of the booklet once printed (again, if desired)

The pdf of the briefing book will go live on our website either way for free download.

We hope you find the ideas within – and more generally, on this site – both useful thoughts on what should change in US foreign policy as well as a pragmatic agenda for what can change in US foreign policy through pressure from activists, academics, commentators and Congressional reps. And of course, contact us with any pitch ideas or other comments.


Kelsey Atherton, Andy Facini, Yong Kwon, Andrew Leber, Sam Ratner, Emma Steiner & the rest of the FTB crew

Breaking the Horrifying US Drone Habit

#9 in series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

By Dan Mahanty and Allegra Harpootlian

Key Takeaway: Have a real national conversation about remote targeted killing and end the unlawful, secret, and unaccountable use of lethal force.  

Our lives are made up of habits and routines. Some are boring, but necessary, like unloading the dishwasher or flossing. Some keep us going, like that monthly book club or Taco Tuesday. Others hold us back. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government developed a lot of bad habits, but few as damaging – and hard to break –  as its addiction to the use of lethal force to solve problems. With a new administration in power and the twenty year mark of our wars just around the corner, policymakers have another chance to break one of America’s worst foreign policy habits.

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A Peace Agreement in Korea Can Model US Commitment to Human Security

By Hyun Lee

In the wake of North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches, President Biden was asked about his “red line” on dealing with Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government. Biden responded that any diplomacy between his administration and Kim’s “has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” Demanding North Korean denuclearization as a prerequisite for talks is a road the US has been down before, and it only leads to increased tensions. If the US continues pursuing this failed framework, it is doomed to repeat the sins of the past.

There is, however, another way forward. Rather than continue with the failed policy of demanding North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization, the Biden administration should first pursue a peace agreement that replaces the fragile Korean War armistice and formally ends the 70-year-old conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Replacing the armistice with a peace agreement would allow all parties to the ongoing conflict — the US, North and South Korea — and possibly China, which had fought alongside North Korea in the war, to begin building trust. It would also address other detrimental costs associated with maintaining a large military presence on the Korean Peninsula. 

Continue reading “A Peace Agreement in Korea Can Model US Commitment to Human Security”

Scaling Back Sanctions

#8 in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

By Andrew Leber

Key takeaway: Progressive foreign policy should demote sanctions as a policy option, favoring diplomatic coalition-building and policies that strengthen, rather than warp, rules governing the global financial system.

One of the most welcome shifts in US foreign policy debates is the mounting criticism of the US sanctions regime, which all too often takes the form of expressive cruelty rather than forming a part of purposeful policy. Decades after conventional foreign-policy thinking turned against comprehensive sanctions (such as those placed on Iraq in the 1990s), commentators and policymakers have begun to raise questions about the effectiveness and basic morality of supposedly “targeted” financial sanctions. 

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A Progressive Win in the NDAA

By Ashley Pratt

Buried amid end-of-the-year wrangling over then-President Trump’s threats to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over Section 230 (protecting social media companies from liability for posts on their sites), it was easy to miss several articles covering modifications to banking regulations that made it into the bill. Yet there was actually a significant progressive foreign policy win among the new banking rules.

In short, this legislation requires that companies in the US report ultimate beneficial owners, the natural person or persons who ultimately benefit from the commercial activity of the company due to their overall ownership stake, to the Department of the Treasury. While that may seem like an arcane bureaucratic change, it hands progressives the tools they need to press for global financial transparency – if they choose to do so.

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Immigration Policy for Decarceration and Global Justice

By Jacob Hamburger

#7 in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

Key takeaway: It is ultimately up to Congress to reform the underlying structure of the immigration statutes. But if the Biden Administration acts decisively to expand humanitarian protection and dismantle the carceral immigration system, it will lay the groundwork for lasting reform.

Over the past four years, Trump has enacted hundreds of policies aimed at preventing migrants from entering the United States, and punishing non-citizens already present. His administration has used fear-mongering over “caravans” of asylum seekers, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, to effectively halt US refugee and asylum systems, while also stranding tens of thousands of migrants in dangerous situations in Mexican border cities. In the meantime, it has sought to make securing legal status as difficult as possible for many other groups of would-be immigrants. 

Continue reading “Immigration Policy for Decarceration and Global Justice”