Memorial Day is a day when Americans remember those who died in the service of our country. The men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice did so to preserve our security and freedom. We owe them more than periodic remembrances and statements of gratitude. We owe them an unshakeable commitment to ensuring that current and future soldiers are sent into harm’s way only when the nation’s interests are clearly at stake.

Too often our leaders have sent Americans to die in response to vague threats or in pursuit of unclear purposes. Memorial Day should remind us all to demand better foreign policy leadership.

Our nation’s founders opposed large standing military forces in peacetime because they feared it would encourage leaders to use them frequently. Powerful armies are a temptation for ambitious politicians. The founders also intended for Congress to act as a check on presidential war-making, requiring a majority vote for declarations of war. President George Washington articulated this wisdom in his farewell address of 1796, calling for America to avoid permanent alliances, enmities and foreign wars.

These assumptions dominated American policy for most of the nation’s early history. But after World War II, and with the onset of the Cold War, the United States took a very different course. To contain communist aggression, Americans supported the largest peacetime military in the nation’s history—more powerful than nearly any other. To enable crisis decision-making, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Congress ceded war-making to the president.

Many of these policy changes were necessary. They made our country and our allies safer. Nonetheless, since 1945 it has become easier for American presidents to deploy forces abroad, often without clarity of purpose or strategy. In Vietnam, almost 3 million Americans served, and more than 58,000 died. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were never clear about why Vietnam mattered and what we were fighting for.

The same can be said for Iraq, where more than 1.5 million Americans served and 4,474 died. Why were American forces sent to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein? Where were the alleged “weapons of mass destruction?” Where was the connection between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization?

The men and women who served in Vietnam, Iraq and other wars showed courage and patriotism. They followed orders. But they deserved better. Their missions were noble, but they failed because the wars were not clearly connected to national interests. Our soldiers did not know why they were fighting, and it was therefore almost impossible to formulate an effective strategy. How can you win if you do not know what winning is?

Perhaps these wars had worthwhile purposes, and perhaps they could have been conducted more successfully. The absence of a clear definition of interests by civilian leaders – Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and others – made it impossible to set appropriate and consistent battlefield priorities. This was particularly true in difficult counterinsurgency conflicts where the native resistance had a clear goal (expel the occupier), and the American occupation army was uncertain whether and why it wished to stay.

Today, more wars similar to Vietnam and Iraq are likely. We face a series of potential conflicts around North Korea, the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine and Iran. The spread of the Islamic State group and other terrorist groups also draws intensive American military attention. The inexperienced and understaffed foreign policy team around President Donald Trump is increasing the size and aggressive posture of the military, while at the same time cutting tools for diplomacy, multilateral cooperation and international aid. When confronted by its first major foreign policy crisis, which will happen soon, the current administration will turn to the military and deploy troops. The numbers will start small, and they will grow as threats metastasize and the expectations for quick American victories escalate.

This is our history. It is also our present and our future. As a global power, we cannot turn back to a time of small armies and infrequent American wars abroad. Let us instead use this Memorial Day to prepare for the foreign policy challenges we have recently neglected by asking our leaders to clearly articulate our national interests and define our priorities. We can then demand that future service members are sent into battle only when their efforts are truly vital for the nation’s security and freedom. This does not require isolationism, but instead a more deliberate, careful and well-planned use of American force. We owe those who have already given their lives for our country nothing less.


This article originally appeared in Psychology Today and various newspapers.


The Islamic State group has unleashed a new set of coordinated terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and seeks to provoke deeper fear, hatred and militarization.

Unfortunately, it is succeeding.

As we tend to the victims and their families and reassure the shaken, the trumpets of war and exclusion are already elevating their sound in both Europe and the U.S. And maybe rightfully so, as it is indeed cathartic to lash back at those who have hurt us in despicable, devilish ways.

We in the West have a long history now of combating modern terrorism, dating back to at least the 1970s, continuing through the years after the 9/11 attacks, to the recent attacks in Paris and now Brussels. And we have learned some hard lessons. We should remember a few of them as we approach the precipice of a new phase in our reactions to the current threat.

First, violent reactions to terrorism must be focused, discriminate and carefully planned.

A general resort to war has been almost completely ineffective in Iraq and other regions, and overreaction fuels the resentments and recruitment of more terrorists. Excessive violence undermines more of our friends than our enemies. The best counterterrorism operations have been clearly targeted as law enforcement, not war, and when necessary, killing those who have committed and abetted the worst of the crimes.

We must also articulate our values and live up to them. Terrorism shines a spotlight on our societies and the frequent mistreatment of people, including immigrants. We are not responsible for the terrorists, but we aid their hatred when we act in hateful ways.

During the past decade, the rhetoric of intolerance in the United States, especially in Texas, has given false evidence to terrorist claims about our alleged tyranny of Muslims and other minorities. As we fight individual terrorists, we must flagrantly display how much we value, love and cherish the millions of good people who happen to share the same religion, ethnicity and background. We are not fighting a religion or a race. We are fighting criminals, and some of them are white Christians, too.

Finally, and most important, we must show patience. Quick reactions have almost always failed to produce their promised results. Time is on our side, and we should use it to investigate, understand and plan before we react. We are better off absorbing another terrorist attack and preparing more effectively to interdict the terrorists, rather than overreacting and creating a multiplying effect of new terrorist threats down the road.

Despite the fear and suffering, the basic security of our society is not imperiled as it was by Soviet missiles during the Cold War. We are best served by addressing the core sources of criminality rather than locking down to anticipate the next fire. We must play the long game because that is our greatest interest and our greatest advantage.

The fear of terrorism is real and legitimate. Strategic leadership, however, must do more than react to fear. Strategic leadership involves deep analysis, historical perspective and policymaking for the long term.

We must use all of our capabilities, but we must use them wisely and effectively. Feel-good reactions are self-defeating and play into the terrorists’ hands. Courage comes in careful planning, close attention to our values, and considered timing. In the end, we will be judged by how we react more than how we have suffered.

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 22 March 2016

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.