The result, over and over again, is a choice between intractable stalemate and outright failure. And since military failures come with steep political (and geopolitical) costs, elected officials and their advisers opt for stalemate, which in an age of the all-volunteer armed forces has proven to be remarkably sustainable over astonishingly long stretches of time. Most people aren’t fighting or even know anyone who is, so why not keep muddling through with no end in sight?
The problem is that of course some people are fighting, and the communities from which they come do notice the indecisiveness and the dithering. In 2016 Donald Trump stood out from the both the herd of independent minds seeking the GOP nomination and the Democratic frontrunner in highlighting and denouncing America’s aimless, slow-bleed policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that he made clear precisely what he would do differently to change course from the foreign policy “disasters” of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Some days it sounded like he’d withdraw from the world in favor of an “America First” agenda; on others he described a major escalation of air power to pound enemy forces into submission. But at least he pointed to the problem.