U.S. Wars Around the World: March Has a Bloody Legacy of Conflicts and Military Action

The United States has waged global military interventions and conflicts, marked this month by difficult anniversaries that experts said have displayed the true financial and human costs of war — with little foreign policy gain.

Sunday marked the twentieth anniversary of the last major U.S. intervention of the 20th century, NATO's bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, one of the last bastions of Eastern European socialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in support of Kosovo.

The seemingly intractable Balkan conflicts that gripped the immediate post-Cold War era, however, were quickly overshadowed by the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent "War on Terror" launched by then-President George W. Bush.

Since then, the U.S. has spent approximately $6 trillion on related conflicts that have killed at least 500,000 people, according to Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

This toll included not only the military action against Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led government harbored the Al-Qaeda group responsible for 9/11, but also drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan and the toll accumulated since going to war with Iraq, which was accused of developing weapons of mass destruction and of also supporting Al-Qaeda — two charges that later proved false.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq — the sixteenth anniversary of which was marked just last week — resonated throughout the Middle East, while also stirring a Sunni Muslim uprising that actually empowered Al-Qaeda and, later, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Islamist forces would go on to support U.S.-backed rebellions in Syria, whose civil war turned 8 last Friday, and in Libya, where the U.S. and NATO allies began bombing government forces 8 years ago on Tuesday. These conflicts were not included in the Watson Institute's casualty count, of which nearly half were civilians.

Judging by the events that have since transpired in the world, Alan J. Kuperman, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, described March as "a month of major military mishaps."

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The Serbian national flag is seen next to the building of the former federal military headquarters in Belgrade, destroyed during the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, on March 24, 2011, days after the U.S.-led Western military alliance launched a bombing campaign against longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and just over a week after a separate U.S.-backed uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Aleksandar Stankovic/AFP/Getty Images

In the past two decades, military action abroad has usually been conducted on the pretext of humanitarian intervention against iron-fisted dictators, or to eliminate designated national security threats.

Observers have debated, however, whether U.S. involvement actually saved lives in these countries, or just made things worse. With the exception of Kosovo, the nations involved in these interventions continue to suffer the debilitating effects of ongoing unrest.

"U.S. actions appear to have made the situation worse in each case — both for the people of the target country and for the USA — at least in the short to medium term," Kuperman told Newsweek. "In Kosovo, we multiplied the death toll by 10 times, and fostered ethnic cleansing of Serbs. In Libya, we multiplied the death toll by about eight times, and fostered ethnic cleansing of black Africans. In Iraq, we spurred a deadly civil war that gave rise to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS."

U.S. and Western forrays against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi made action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appear inevitable. While former President Barack Obama offered support to insurgents, this assistance fell short of the no-fly zones established in Iraq and Libya, and the growing Islamist current of the opposition made U.S. support increasingly controversial. A U.S.-led coalition would begin bombing in 2014, but ISIS was the target, not Assad, who then received a direct Russian intervention the following year that made his ouster less practical.

"In Syria, U.S. policy backfired in a different way," Kuperman said. "President Obama (perhaps unwittingly) encouraged the militarization of Syria's uprising by calling on President Assad to step down while NATO was militarily intervening to help rebels in Libya. This sent a signal that the USA would intervene militarily in Syria if the protesters took up arms, which they soon did. However, Obama then refused to intervene seriously, which left the protesters as sitting ducks for Al-Qaeda/ISIS infiltration and Assad's brutal retaliation."

Syria continued to witness the most intense violence of these nations, though ISIS was officially declared defeated there Saturday, following President Donald Trump's many declarations of victory in the past year and a half. Since March 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more displaced within and outside the country.

Citing the Pentagon, the Washington Post reported Saturday that anti-ISIS efforts have cost the U.S. at least $28.5 billion as of December with up to 11,000 allied forces in Syria killed and perhaps just as many in Iraq, where the Watson Institute estimated up to 165,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by direct violence since the U.S. invasion, as of 2015.

Asked if U.S. interventions had made Middle Eastern states such as Iraq, Libya and Syria more secure, Monica Toft, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told Newsweek, "No, America's interventions have opened up a Pandora's box from state collapse to regional and global balancing of power in the Middle East."

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A chart details the financial and human cost of the "War on Terror" since the deadly events of September 11, 2001. The toll of deaths—not including other conflicts in countries such as Libya, Somalia and Syria—may be much higher and is also compounded by hundreds of thousands killed by the side effects of such conflicts. WATSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS/BROWN UNIVERSITY/STATISTA/NEWSWEEK

Toft argued that, despite the immense cost in terms of money and human life, "U.S. interests have been served in only a limited way if we consider the imminent defeat of Islamic State (and Islamist jihad more generally) in Syria and Iraq, which is what we set out as the objective."

Moreover, she said, "the U.S. has reduced its own influence and reputation. Russia, a competitor of ours in the region, remains an active player and has significantly strengthened its position and influence—not only has Russia been part of the effort to defeat IS, but it has managed to retain its ally Syrian President Assad in power, an outcome the U.S. did not want."

Russia's expanding role in the Middle East has come as a direct result of U.S. activity there. The fallout of the NATO-backed overthrow and execution of Qaddafi at the hands of rebels who themselves waged civil war on one another had a lasting effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still remained bitter over NATO's role in the Balkans over a decade earlier. Though Moscow did not step in to save Qaddafi, its decision to rescue fellow Soviet-era ally Assad has widely been deemed a success, empowering its position among Washington's allies and foes alike.

Iran has also benefitted. Tehran gained an ally in the Shiite Muslim-dominated government that replaced longtime foe Hussein in Baghdad, and expanding ties with Damascus. Iranian support for these countries in the anti-ISIS fight has helped Tehran establish a powerful network of allied militias spanning throughout the Levant and it has claimed close allies in the Zaidi Shiite Muslim Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement challenging a Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, currently beset by the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"It's simply a mess," Toft told Newsweek, also noting the ongoing war in Afghanistan—the longest in U.S. history. "We have no grand strategy for what the U.S. interests are and how to secure those interests. The U.S. loves military force; you might say we are addicted to it. Contemporary history has shown that force can only get you so far, and perhaps even profoundly, in the modern era is far less likely to achieve what you set out to achieve."

Congress' historic rebuke of U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign—which itself would reach its fourth anniversary this upcoming Tuesday—may be evidence of some lessons learned over the past 20 years, though, and a president who campaigned on a platform against "endless wars" in the Middle East has yet to wage any of his own.

"Our previous three presidents all launched ill-advised military interventions in the month of March that backfired by sharply escalating the killing of innocent civilians and harming U.S. interests and values," Kuperman told Newsweek. "For all of President Trump's personal flaws and policy errors, he has yet to launch such a catastrophic intervention."

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In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, seen through night-vision lenses aboard amphibious transport dock the USS Ponce, the USS Barry fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn against government targets in Libya, March 19, 2011 in the Mediterranean Sea. Five years later, President Barack Obama would refer to the intervention as the "worst mistake" of his presidency. Nathanael Miller/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Trump has, however, embarked on campaigns to discredit and destabilize foes, evoking memories of similar efforts under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations leading up to their interventions. Sanctions put forth since 2017 have had devastating effects on Iran and Venezuela's economies, already beset by internal mismanagement prominently highlighted in statements from the White House and State Department.

A cocktail of European skepticism toward the U.S. and growing Russian and Chinese international influence may have tempered Washington's adventurism, but the world's only military superpower retains the capability to step in nearly anywhere, anytime, with little threat to the homeland, but potentially earth-shattering ramifications abroad. As the Trump administration often says, "all options are on the table."

"The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to have a national conversation and serious reassessment about what its national interests are and how to best secure those interests," Toft told Newsweek.

"Today, surveys reveal that people around the world see the U.S. as not only more threatening, but one of the biggest threats they face," she added. "Is this really how Americans want to be seen, and do they really believe that such views and perceptions of the U.S. are going to help us to advance our interests? I don't believe so."