The Empty Rhetoric of “Ending Endless Wars”

How euphemisms prevent clear thinking about thorny foreign policy problems

As we’ve noted here at The Liberal Patriotabstruse and deceptive political language almost always serves to confuse and mislead rather than clarify and illuminate what’s at stake in our public policy debates. Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the embrace of shallow catchphrases like the “forever wars” and “ending endless wars” by wide swathes of the foreign policy establishment and political leaders on both ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, the rhetoric of “ending endless wars” has been picked up by political leaders from former President Trump on the right to Democratic presidential candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the left. President Biden even got in on the act as he sought his party’s nomination in 2020.

Many who use this rhetoric mean well, and they’ve certainly performed a valuable service by raising the profile of these conflicts in foreign policy circles. But it says nothing good about the state of our foreign policy debate that such clichés can capture our imaginations with such ease. However, the real problem with this euphemism lies in the fact that it prevents actual thought about difficult and complex foreign policy problems. That starts with the way it stacks the rhetorical deck; after all, who wants to be in favor of wars that never end? Worse, these stock phrases fail to answer the question they beg in the first place: what does it actually take to resolve – or at least de-escalate – persistent conflicts? Such language reduces complicated conflicts that have defied resolution to simplistic slogans – with the assumption that removing the United States from the equation amounts to ending a war. 

But ending American involvement in a conflict doesn’t bring it to an end. That’s a lesson we ought to have learned from President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. When American troops left Iraq, the country’s internal conflicts didn’t cease – they continued and festered. When the Islamic State took advantage of these conflicts to seize wide swathes of Iraqi territory, the United States found itself once again sending its armed forces into Iraq to prevent a worst-case scenario.  

Calls to “end endless wars” substitute slogans for rigorous thought about daunting foreign policy questions. What’s more, this rhetoric encourages magical thinking about foreign policy – namely, the erroneous notion that wars end when the United States ceases to be involved. It fosters a shallow analysis of the conflicts these political leaders, foreign policy experts, and activists say they want to end, one that fails to engage with the concrete issues that drive the conflicts themselves. All in all, the catchphrase of “ending endless wars” represents a prime example of what the political philosopher Michael Walzer calls shortcuts: simple heuristics that circumvent the need for actual thought about and considered judgment of complicated foreign policy questions. 

Take the war in Yemen: it’s become something of a cause celebre for “end endless war” types on the progressive left – and a number of conservatives as well. Most often seen by activists as an indefensible Saudi military intervention in a chronically impoverished and benighted neighboring country, even a cursory examination of the conflict in Yemen reveals a kaleidoscopic array of overlapping civil wars propelled by their own internal logics. Political and military divisions between the Houthis, the internationally-recognized Hadi government, the separatist Southern Transition Council, and other local factions have fractured Yemen into what the International Crisis Group characterized last summer as “new, independent [political and military] entities that operate across roughly five different cantons.” Regional military interventions by Saudi Arabia and Iran layer additional complexity on top of an already intractable set of internal conflicts. This fragmentation ought to make clear that ending – or at least de-escalating – Yemen’s wars will require more than a simple halt in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Even so, bringing direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen to an end would represent a significant de-escalation of the country’s multiple conflicts. That’d be a salutary turn of events by any standard. But to accomplish that goal would require the United States to recognize and address the legitimate security concerns that continue to drive the Saudi military campaign. Saudi cities and oil facilities, for instance, have repeatedly been targeted and hit by Houthi missile and drone attacks over the course of the conflict. These concerns must be addressed to end the Saudi military campaign in Yemen – and in part that may involve the United States selling the Saudis more arms in the form of missile and air defense systems. However meritorious they may otherwise be, moves like halting the sale of smart bombs to Saudi Arabia won’t alleviate the security anxieties that keep Riyadh directly involved in Yemen.

What’s more, “end endless war” sloganeering prevents us from thinking clearly about the diplomacy that’s desperately needed to truly de-escalate and end Yemen’s conflicts. A Saudi proposal to create a buffer zone on Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia as part of a nationwide ceasefire deal, for instance, provides an indication of what might be possible with more imaginative American and international diplomacy. But “end endless wars” rhetoric inhibits such diplomatic creativity by obsessing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia would not likely bring Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen to an end – to say nothing of halting Yemen’s multiple civil wars. Hollow euphemisms like “end endless wars” obscure – and often outright deny – the realities of conflicts like Yemen and inhibit serious deliberation about how best to end the fighting.

Much the same could be said about other conflicts frequently classified as “endless wars,” in particular Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Serious debates can be had over U.S. policy toward each conflict, and compelling cases can be made that the United States should disengage from them. But we delude ourselves if we think that cutting American losses and withdrawing equals ending a war. It’s dishonest and self-deceiving to pretend otherwise, and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of actually ending these wars in some fashion. Self-delusion and denial are not sound foundations for an effective foreign policy. 

Ending wars requires more from the United States than mere slogans or the end of American involvement in a given conflict. We need to do the hard thinking that’s necessary to resolve conflicts, and that’s impossible in a foreign policy atmosphere dominated by clichés and sloganeering. As a first step, though, we need to reject the intellectual shortcuts that permeate discussions of these complex foreign policy questions and get down to the demanding deliberations necessary to answer them.