America has military forces committed to locations around the world. About 15 percent of our million man armed forces are so deployed. There are about 800 installations and bases in 70 countries across the globe, with the largest numbers in Asia and Europe but many in the Middle East and Africa.
We have about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, over 5,000 in Iraq, and between 2,000 and 4,000 troops in Syria. And there’s a government classification of “unknown” with almost 40,000 troops.
These commitments have been supported, if not specifically authorized, by recent presidents and Congress. If you ask about their legitimacy, experts often refer to an authorization to use military force against terrorists passed three days after the 9/11 attacks.
Several of these commitments result in significant civilian casualties. Trump has ratcheted up bombings and airstrikes in some areas. The more bombs we drop, the more casualties there are.
Most troops are not directly engaged in combat; and often they are engaged in time-consuming, nation-building situations, trying to win over locals, build infrastructure and reform governments. But their mission to provide training and support can turn dangerous. In October 2017, we lost four soldiers who were ambushed near the border of Niger and Mali. We also have forces in Africa in Djibouti, Somalia and Cameroon. In the Middle East, we are deeply implicated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan.
While the number of personnel is at a low ebb, that doesn’t mean we are less engaged than in the past. It reflects changes in military technology and how forces are used; covert missions, commando operations and drone strikes have become the hallmark of our strategy.
The global presence of our military does not come cheap. The military accounts for about half of our discretionary budget; spending is climbing sharply and is likely to continue to do so. President Donald Trump has called for $716 billion in military spending this year, a 13 percent increase from the final request of the Obama administration.
Yet it is hard for Americans to figure out what all these troops are doing, why they are doing it, how many conflicts they are engaged in, and what the costs and gains are. These commitments are rarely discussed or defended. There is largely silence from the President and the Congress, with little public debate and oversight.
So the question is: What are we gaining from all of this involvement around the world?
The American public appears indifferent to these commitments, I think, in large part, because they just don’t know much about them. Out of sight, out of mind. The news media reports on them only episodically. There are few American casualties, and with our all-volunteer armed forces, only a tiny percentage of American families have military members engaged in these commitments.
The principal concern of most Americans is with their own safety. If they think they are safe, they worry much less about these broader concerns.
So we have vast military involvement around the world and a kind of massive indifference at home.
These commitments appear open ended with no exit strategy, and new ones keep arising. Recently a Pentagon official was asked how long we would be in Syria; he replied, “As long as it takes.” The President and the Congress didn’t bat an eye.
Trump and Obama seemed in their election campaigns to be skeptical about engaging in wars without clear goals or outcomes. But in office, they have continued them, and even expanded them.
The more resources we commit to these small but never-ending conflicts, the less prepared we will be for major threats — posed by North Korea, Russia and China, for example. Small conflicts become the tail that wags the dog.
But that we conduct foreign policy, commit troops in dangerous places, incur large costs all by stealth, is deeply disturbing.
We need to be paying a lot more attention to our military commitments around the world.
And our leaders need to level with us about what’s going on, and why all these commitments are worth the effort. They need to explain clearly what our geopolitical objectives are and how much they think we should spend to achieve them — in time, energy, money and American lives.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.