Here’s a question worth asking about America’s seemingly endless global conflicts: If you kill somebody and there’s no one there (on our side anyway), is the United States still at war? That may prove to be the truly salient question when it comes to the future of America’s war on terror, which is now almost 18 years old and encompasses significant parts of the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Think of it, if you want, as the artificial intelligence, or AI, question.
It’s not, however, the question that Washington is obsessing over. Retired military officials, defense outlets, and pundits alike have instead been pontificating about what it means for the Department of Defense and key Trump officials to regularly insist that the country’s national security focus is shifting—from a struggle against insurgent groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to the growing influence of what are termed “near-peer” enemies, a fancy phrase for China and Russia. Speculation about what this refocusing will look like has only grown in the wake of President Trump’s various tweets and statements declaring that America’s endless wars will be coming to a “glorious end” and how “now is the time to bring our troops back home.”
What’s been missing from this conversation is an answer to what should be a relatively easy question: Is the war on terror really being dumped to focus on great power competition?