For the American public, military conflict is the new normal

A new survey shows Americans are somewhat oblivious to U.S. military action abroad – unless that action includes having American boots on the ground. This means that there is very little popular pressure for the US military to end violent campaigns in countries around the world in the name of fighting terrorism.

According to the Chicago Council Survey 2021, US troops engaged in overseas fighting is the only action that a majority of Americans identify as an act of war (71%). Only minorities of Americans, although substantial, report that drone strikes or assassinations against government officials in other countries (44%), airstrikes against anti-government insurgents in other countries (41 %) and drone strikes against suspected terrorists in other countries (39 percent) count as acts of war. Only a third believe that the deployment of US special operations is an example of war (34%). There are few differences between political affiliations.

But the United States has largely engaged in conflict in these more remote or footprint-limited ways. Today, we are actively participating in conflicts without large-scale troop deployment in dozens of countries around the world.

In the 20-year war on terrorism, the United States carried out 91,000 strikes in seven countries. This year alone, we have carried out strikes in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia. Since 2018, US forces have engaged in some type of combat or potential combat in 12 countries and have conducted counterterrorism training and assistance in nearly 80. Despite this extensive use of military engagement, by the US definition of the war, only two of these countries count. like places where we were at war.

Some analysts disagree and believe that all of these actions may constitute a war, and that is why they have described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as having set back the war, rather than actually ending it.

How did we come to such massive counterterrorism activity around the world? It was easy to do. The 2001 Use of Military Force Authorization (AUMF), adopted just days after the September 11 attacks, provided legal cover for deadly military actions in many countries and against many terrorist groups, some of which did not exist. not even when the authorization was passed two decades ago. By relying on this overbroad congressional authorization, successive administrations have avoided having to advocate publicly to enter new and changing battlefields, and Congress artfully eschewed its oversight role.

Bypassing the specific authorization for new conflicts means that we have entered most of these new battlegrounds casually, with little or no public debate, scrutiny, or awareness.

Our government’s informal relationship with military conflicts has helped shape a similar public opinion. No wonder Americans do not view these engagements as acts of war when they occur so regularly, out of sight, from a distance, and out of debate.

But the ease with which we entered into these conflicts belies the serious repercussions of such action. They are costly and have unintended consequences, such as inexplicable civilian casualties that fuel new conflicts, making us less secure, not more. Because these individual conflicts do not need specific authorization, they go unnoticed and their costs are not accounted for either. With so little scrutiny, Americans cannot be sure that these military actions at all support our interests abroad.

There is growing attention in Congress to raise the bar of our military interventions abroad to ensure greater control. In July, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the National Security Powers Act, which would ensure that hostile military actions, such as deadly drone strikes and assisting foreign militaries in countering insurgencies, always trigger a control of Congress whether we call it war or not.

With these requirements, entering into conflicts abroad would be more circumscribed, and in the process of seeking leave from Congress, the costs, risks and uncertain consequences would be explored and debated. This would increase the public visibility of these military actions. Ordinary Americans may not yet call it war, but they would be better equipped to calculate the risks and rewards of involvement in future conflicts.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy.

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