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Opinion | Jeffrey D. Sachs

Our misguided ‘wars of choice’

There is one foreign policy goal that matters above all the others, and that is to keep the United States out of a new war, whether in Syria, North Korea, or elsewhere. In recent days, President Trump has struck Syria with Tomahawk missiles, bombed Afghanistan with the most powerful nonnuclear bomb in the US arsenal, and has sent an armada toward nuclear-armed North Korea. We could easily find ourselves in a rapidly escalating war, one that could pit the United States directly against the nuclear-armed countries of China, North Korea, and Russia.

Such a war, if it turned nuclear and global, could end the world. Even a nonnuclear war could end democracy in the United States, or the United States as a unified nation. Who thought the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan would end the Soviet Union itself?

These are terrifying thoughts, and they may seem unreal, even preposterous. Yet Trump is impetuous, unstable, and inexperienced. His foreign policies swing wildly from day to day. He makes threats, such as attacking North Korea, that could have horrific, indeed catastrophic, consequences.

Sad to say, America’s history of war is not encouraging. America’s shining nobility in World War II and its positive, though flawed, role in the Korean War, should not obscure America’s many disastrous wars of choice, when America went to war for deeply flawed reasons and ended up causing havoc at home and abroad.


America’s costly wars of choice have been driven by many factors. President William McKinley took America to war against Spain in 1898 in search of overseas empire. President Woodrow Wilson took America as a late entrant into World War I, in 1917, in pursuit of his deeply flawed vision of a “war to end all wars,” instead helping to usher in a “peace to end all peace.” President Lyndon Johnson took America to war in Vietnam in 1964 mainly to protect himself against right-wing charges that he was “weak on communism.” President George W. Bush took America to war in Afghanistan, in 2001, and Iraq, in 2003, to topple the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, according to the remarkably naive neoconservative game plan to rid the greater Middle East of regimes hostile to US interests. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended these wars into Libya and Syria, in 2011, to topple Moammar Khadafy and Bashar al-Assad.

Now, with just a few weeks on the job, Trump seems to be continuing or expanding the wars of his predecessors, while threatening to initiate a war with nuclear-armed North Korea.


In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the regimes were quickly defeated by US-led forces, but peace and stability proved to be elusive. All of these countries have been wracked by continuing war and terrorism and US military engagement. And in Syria, the United States was not even successful in toppling Assad, since Assad had powerful allies, Russia and Iran. America’s intervention to topple Assad has escalated into a full-fledged proxy war involving many countries and jihadist groups, and of course the entry of ISIS into Syria.

It’s not so hard to rev the American public to fight a war, even a horribly misguided one, if the government claims falsely that the United States is under attack or is acting in the service of some grand humanitarian cause.

Four reforms to foreign policy are vital for our survival in this growing mayhem.

First, the CIA should be drastically restructured, to be solely an intelligence agency rather than an unaccountable secret army of the president. When the CIA was created, in 1947, it was given the two very different roles of intelligence and covert operations. Truman was alarmed about this dual role, and time has proved him right. The CIA has been a vital success when it provides key intelligence but an unmitigated disaster when it serves as the president’s secret army. We need to end the military functions of the CIA, yet Trump has recently expanded the CIA’s war-making powers by giving the agency the authority to target drone strikes without Pentagon approval.


Second, it is vital for Congress to reestablish decision-making over war and peace. That is its constitutional role, indeed perhaps its most important constitutional role as a bulwark of democratic government. Yet Congress has almost completely abandoned this responsibility. When Trump brandishes the sword toward North Korea, or drops bombs on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Congress is mute, neither investigating nor granting nor revoking any legislative authority for such actions. This is Congress’s greatest dereliction of duty. Congress needs to wake up before Trump launches an impetuous and potentially calamitous war against nuclear-armed North Korea.

Third, it is essential to break the secrecy over US foreign policy making. Most urgently, we need an inquest into America’s involvement in Syria in order for the public to understand how we arrived at the current morass. Since Congress is unlikely to undertake this, and since the executive branch would of course never do so, the responsibility lies with civil society, especially academia and other policy experts, to coalesce around an information-gathering and reporting function.

Fourth, we need urgently to return to global diplomacy within the UN Security Council. Yes, Russia will veto many US proposals, and vice versa. But it is precisely the success in forging diplomatic agreements, such as with the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, that will enable our survival.


We are at the 100th anniversary of World War I, and countless historians have noted the similarities between that time and our own. On the eve of World War I, the world economy was booming; technology and science were ascendant; and world war seemed unthinkable. Yet the very dynamism of technology and the world economy was provoking fear and loathing among the major powers. The competing empires each came to view their positions as precarious relative to the others, and to believe that a war could be a resolution to those fears.

The main difference is of course the incomparably greater destructive potential today. As JFK said in his inaugural address a half-century ago, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

America has developed a level of wealth, productivity, and technological know-how utterly unimaginable in the past. Yet we put everything at risk through our wanton addiction to war. If we instead used our vast knowledge, economic might, and technological excellence to help cure diseases, end poverty, protect the environment, and ensure global food security, America would profoundly inspire other nations and do much to secure a new era of global peace.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”