With the rapidly spreading violence and chaos in the Middle East clearly in mind during his address to the United Nations, Pope Francis issued a “grave summons to an examination of conscience [for] those charged with the conduct of international affairs.” For the U.S., an examination of conscience — and facts — reveals a Middle East military policy that one senior intelligence officer starkly summed up as “perpetual war” with no strategic objectives.

Despite our good intentions, our involvement in these thousand-year-old conflicts in which we have no real friends, and where we have been on every side at one time or another, has proved disastrous. The simple truth is that this strategy is bankrupting our nation and prolonging the conflicts.

U.S.- trained Iraqi and Syrian fighters are cutting, running and allowing state-of-the-art American weapons to fall into the hands of our enemies. Syrian refugees are flooding into Europe, with thousands dying on their journeys. The Russians are supplying weapons and aid to the Syrian government against ISIL — positioning Putin as the region’s leader in the war against Islamic terror. With the American-supported Iraqi government teetering on collapse, Iran’s influence continues to grow.

And now come New York Times accounts that senior officials at U.S. Central Command have been skewing reports to the president and Congress in order to downplay these failures.

The facts, according to the Times, are that the real truths intelligence experts have tried to communicate are sobering in the extreme. They’ve concluded that we have no strategy and no idea what “victory” would mean in Iraq and Syria; that the religious nature of these conflicts has been greatly underestimated; that U.S. “boots on the ground” would be totally unrealistic, and that U.S. bombings have done little to disrupt black-market oil sales funding ISIL; instead, they have left the region in a state of “perpetual war.”

Even those who believe it’s in our interest to remain immersed in these battles must now agree that the costs are simply too great. With the money we’ve spent in Iraq and Syria, we could have rebuilt our crumbling roads and bridges, allowed every college student in America to graduate debt-free and still given beleaguered middle-class taxpayers a trillion-dollar tax break.

Instead, our dollars are being systematically and outrageously wasted across the Middle East. Truckloads full of cash have disappeared into the pockets of warlords and corrupt government officials. Iraq even used our money at one point to pay 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who don’t exist.

Meanwhile, the half-billion dollars Congress appropriated to arm and train so-called “friendly” Syrians to battle ISIL has produced a mere handful of combatants left in the field — “four or five,” according to Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command. The foolishness of thinking we could train and equip a few fighters, and then drop them into a conflict with dozens of groups and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, rebels, and terrorists fighting each other — and expect them to make a difference — defies all reason.

Together with my Republican colleague, Curt Clawson of Florida, I pleaded with the House earlier this year to come to its bipartisan senses and not appropriate another $600 million to the funds that had already been wasted and misspent on this program. We failed, and the taxpayers are forced to keep anteing up.

To its credit, the House did stand up for taxpayers and unanimously pass my amendment to the 2016 defense authorization bill directing the Pentagon to stop supplying and training any military faction in Iraq or Syria that has been found to misuse U.S. arms and resources. At the rate we’re going, misuse will soon be so widespread that this provision will apply to virtually every fighter in Iraq and Syria who can hold or drop a gun.

As the U.S. came within inches of war with Syria two years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry bristled when I suggested that our leaders were suffering from a case of “historical amnesia” — failing to see the obvious parallels between our military involvement in the Middle East and the war in Vietnam, for which we paid so dearly in precious blood and treasure. With our situation in the Middle East progressively worsening, I hope my point has become more clear.

Now one thing is certain. We need to heed Pope Francis’ “grave summons to an examination of conscience” and turn the Middle East’s problems back to the Middle East. We can’t solve them. And we certainly can’t afford to keep paying for them.


Rick Nolan, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District in the U.S. House.