Once again, the United States risks being drawn into an unnecessary war in the Middle East. Donald Trump’s impulsive and reckless escalation of conflict with Iran, most recently his decision to order the killing of Qassem Soleimani, illustrates the danger of electing the most corrupt and unqualified president in our nation’s history—a man who has little idea of what it means to put the nation’s interests ahead of his own.
But it is also the consequence of an approach to foreign policy that relies on the U.S. military to achieve the impossible, instead of doing the hard work of statecraft. Sending our military to fight should be the hardest decision we make as a country. Instead, it has become the politically easy path, across political parties and administrations—a way to avoid making compromises or difficult choices about priorities.
For nearly two decades, America has been mired in a series of wars in the Middle East and beyond that has left us less, not more, secure. The wars have taken a staggering human and economic toll. Tens of thousands of U.S. service members have been killed or wounded, and many more live with the invisible scars of war. Millions of civilians have suffered. These conflicts have cost trillions of dollars needed for urgent priorities here at home, created a drag on our economy, contributed to the decay of our democratic culture and institutions, and paved the way for Trump’s ugly divisiveness.
The invasion of Iraq destabilized the Middle East, empowered Iran, and created the conditions that produced ISIS. The 2003 decision to go to war is one of the worst national-security choices American politicians have ever made. In Afghanistan, we’ve “turned the corner” so many times that we seem to be going in circles, and the Taliban controls more territory now than it has since we first invaded, in 2001. U.S.-enabled wars in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have resulted in humanitarian tragedies and created new training grounds for international terrorists. U.S. counterterrorism missions have spread to dozens of countries, largely out of sight of the American people.
There is no question that Trump’s careless actions—not only in the past month, but over the past three years—have made the situation in the Middle East demonstrably worse. Trump’s claim that he killed Soleimani to “stop a war” is breathtakingly disingenuous. He isn’t ending wars; he is making wars harder to end. And now he is taking steps that could start a new one.
We must not accept yet another unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive war. Instead, we should refocus our attention and resources on the challenges that will define our national security for the next generation: promoting prosperity and lessening inequality; addressing the climate crisis; answering resurgent right-wing demagogues who are undermining the strength of our democratic alliances; and countering globalized corruption and authoritarianism led from Moscow and Beijing. America should end its military involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and bring our troops home from these endless wars in smart, responsible ways.
First, I would make the cornerstone of my approach to ending these wars the renewal of efforts to forge diplomatic solutions based on realistic objectives. In the case of Iran, we should have never walked away from a nuclear deal that was working, triggering an inevitable cycle of escalation. I will bring both the U.S. and Iran back into the agreement if that is still possible, and build on the deal with additional negotiations to extend its accomplishments and sunset provisions, while beginning a broader negotiation with Iran, its neighbors, and key world powers to de-escalate regional tensions.
In Syria, we must pursue clear and achievable goals that will not require resources we never intended to commit. And while we must bring our troops home, Trump’s erratic approach has only endangered our partners and further confused an already chaotic situation. We need to be honest with ourselves that, after Trump’s incompetent handling of the situation, any diplomatic deal will be worse than the one we could have gotten before he betrayed our Kurdish partners, confused our European allies, and handed leverage to Turkey and Russia. Instead of playing games with troop deployments and missions, we should use our remaining leverage to negotiate a fragile balance among Syria, Turkey, Russia, and Iran; mitigate the humanitarian crisis; and keep ISIS fighters in prisons.
In Afghanistan, we need serious diplomacy that achieves our counterterrorism goals as we bring home our troops. Trump’s haphazard approach has repeatedly upended delicate negotiations and wasted leverage. And there cannot be any workable deal in Afghanistan as long as the U.S. and Iran are in an escalating conflict.
Second, I would refocus our efforts to prevent terrorist attacks—whether they originate at home or abroad—on intelligence, law enforcement, and international partnerships. These tools have been enormously successful in preventing attacks against the U.S. since 9/11—and more effective and less costly than occupying countries.
Third, in my administration the United States will again lead international efforts to provide the humanitarian and economic aid that is essential to stabilizing Syria, Afghanistan, and other conflict areas in the long term. Instead of this proven and cost-effective approach, the Trump administration has slashed assistance and instituted racist, draconian cuts in the number of refugees we allow into the U.S. By doing our part and leading the way, we can get the world to invest the attention and resources needed to mitigate the local conditions that lead to global threats. As part of this effort, my administration will reduce our aid to corrupt governments and focus instead on economic assistance that empowers citizens and increases human development.
Fourth, I will strengthen our alliances in Europe, Asia, and beyond as an essential pillar of our national security, updating them to address the real challenges of our time.
All these steps will require real investments in our diplomatic capabilities. That’s why I’ve proposed a plan to rebuild the State Department and appoint only highly qualified diplomats, not wealthy campaign donors, to represent our vital interests abroad.
Finally, we will use our military wisely. All three of my brothers served in the military. I know that our service members and their families are smart, tough, and resourceful. They will make any sacrifice we ask of them. But having a strong military means using it with the utmost responsibility. The job of the president is to keep Americans safe. Every day, around the world, our military is engaged in training partner forces, protecting our embassies, providing humanitarian relief, and keeping sea lanes open. But we must reassess our global posture to ensure that U.S. forces are engaged in realistic missions, and that the risks and costs of military deployments must be appropriately limited.
It is to our shame that our politicians have so often asked too much of our troops because military action feels easier—or at least easier to explain—than diplomacy. As commander in chief, I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless there is a vital national-security interest at risk, a strategy with clear and achievable objectives, and a public understanding and acceptance of the long-term costs.
We will hold ourselves to this by recommitting to a simple idea: the constitutional requirement that Congress play a primary role in deciding to engage militarily. The United States should not fight and cannot win wars without deep public support. Successive administrations and Congresses have taken the easy way out by choosing military action without proper authorizations or transparency with the American people. The failure to debate these military missions in public is one of the reasons they have been allowed to continue without real prospect of success.
On my watch, that will end. I am committed to seeking congressional authorization if the use of force is required. Seeking constrained authorizations with limited time frames will force the executive branch to be open with the American people and Congress about our objectives, how the operation is progressing, how much it is costing, and whether it should continue.
Trump has bulldozed his way through international norms and imperiled our reputation on the international stage. But his abuses are possible only because of choices we made over decades in the name of national security, which allowed the erosion of our system’s checks and balances and trade-offs that compromised our nation’s values and ideals. We need to do what actually makes Americans safe and end our endless wars.