The point is not that America never succeeds in military interventions. It is simply that intervention for limited aims is inherently a fraught business because the limit on aims leads to both a limit on means and a willingness to accept middling outcomes rather than wage total war in pursuit of total victory. In World War II, by contrast, the United States endured bloody setbacks that eclipse any of the “military failures” of the post-Cold War era, but the stakes were high enough that America stayed in the fight long enough to achieve ultimate victory
Although it’s unfashionable to say so, America’s post-Cold War interventions have produced real successes to go along with some obvious failures. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 achieved a clear strategic triumph in evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and restoring the balance of power in the Persian Gulf for a decade. Interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo ended horrific wars that were threatening to destabilize southeastern Europe. A coercive diplomacy campaign forced out a brutal Haitian junta in 1994, although longer-term political stability has gone wanting. The intervention in Somalia in 1992 ended in an embarrassing withdrawal after the Battle of Mogadishu, but it still accomplished the Bush administration’s initial aim by saving tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of lives. The war against ISIS from 2014 onward was a model counterterrorism campaign, rolling back a Salafist caliphate at an extremely low human cost for the United States.
This isn’t to whitewash the frustrations and blunders. It is hard to find defenders of the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, because the decade-long civil war that followed rightly casts a dark shadow over what initially looked like a low-cost triumph. The war in Afghanistan has been a terrific failure of nation-building and armed stabilization, although perhaps more of a success in narrow counterterrorism terms. Looming over everything, of course, is the Iraq War, with its undeniably appalling toll in lives, strategic distraction, and regional destabilization. Perhaps different policy choices might still have salvaged a decent outcome in that conflict after the surge of 2007–08, but even so, the price would have been far higher than proponents of the war had initially predicted.
Just as the catastrophe of Vietnam dominated debates about American foreign policy for years thereafter, the tragedy of Iraq dominates debates about the efficacy of force in the post-Cold War era. That’s understandable, given the terrible traumas that war inflicted. But it’s also misleading, in that it has made it harder to assess where American intervention has succeeded and failed in the last thirty years.
IF THE United States has done better than its critics acknowledge, that’s partially because it doesn’t use force nearly as wantonly as they argue. Simply having lots of military power, the thinking goes, makes America search compulsively for opportunities to use it. There is a sliver of truth in this argument. American military might is one of the fundamental realities of world affairs, and the fact that Washington has a military option for addressing many problems ensures that the option will be one of many considered. Yet it is simply not true that the resort to force is America’s default response.
No American president of the post-Cold War era has been cavalier about life-and-death decisions involving U.S. military personnel. On the contrary, presidents are typically loath to have Americans die on their watch and thus reluctant to order U.S. forces into harm’s way. The reflexive first choice is almost always diplomacy, a mix of jawboning, inducements, and pressures applied in hopes of resolving the problem peacefully. When this response fails, presidents typically move on to other non-military expedients, whether economic sanctions or covert action, while deferring a choice to fight for as long as seems prudent. And if the resort to force looks unavoidable, because further delay will damage American interests or force the United States to intervene at higher costs later, policymakers gravitate toward options that reduce the likelihood of U.S. casualties—airpower, strikes from remotely piloted vehicles, or elite special operations forces that can operate with small footprints and carefully managed risk profiles.
Let’s look at the historical record. When the United States has used force, it has usually done so after long periods of delay and repeated efforts to solve the problem through other means. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 followed a months-long national debate over whether to use force at all and a failed effort to compel Saddam’s withdrawal through economic sanctions and coercive diplomacy. U.S. leaders delayed for years before intervening decisively in Bosnia in 1995, and for months before intervening in Kosovo in 1999, in the vain hope that diplomatic pressure might make such intervention unnecessary. In 2014, President Barack Obama waited to use force against the Islamic State until that organization was nearly at the gates of Baghdad and there was simply no alternative to protecting vulnerable civilians and important U.S. geopolitical interests.
Even U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 were hardly reflexive or unthinking. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan came only after 9/11 showed that the previous, years-long approach of combating terrorism primarily through diplomacy, sanctions, and occasional one-off airstrikes had failed catastrophically. In Iraq, three presidents had deferred a full-on confrontation with Saddam Hussein for a dozen years after the Persian Gulf War ended, relying on military containment, economic pressure, and covert action instead.
There were reasonable arguments, then and now, about whether Washington should have given coercive diplomacy more time to work against the Taliban in 2001 and Saddam in 2003. In the latter case, the United States probably would have been better off not invading Iraq at all. But in both cases, it is hard to argue that there was truly a “rush to war.”
Then there are all the bloody dogs that did not bark. Bill Clinton refused to use force to halt the Rwandan genocide. Neither Clinton nor George W. Bush intervened to halt the civil war in Sudan or the war in the Great Lakes region of Africa, conflicts that consumed millions of lives. Barack Obama resisted military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria, even declining to enforce his own chemical weapons redline in 2013.
Most remarkably, four presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) all went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a military confrontation with Iran and with North Korea. They did so even though each of those presidents declared it a vital U.S. national security interest to prevent those countries from developing nuclear weapons—and even though each of those presidents saw those countries advance their nuclear ambitions during their time in office. When the United States did use force against Iran in early 2020, it did so dramatically—killing Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, a man who had been ordering the deaths of Americans for many years. But again, that step was something that American leaders had been considering, and deferring, for over a decade. And for all its bellicose rhetoric, the Trump administration then went out of its way to avoid a larger war, simply absorbing a multi-missile Iranian attack on a U.S. base in Iraq.
If the U.S. military is indeed the hammer in search of a nail, it is odd that policymakers so often avoid hammering anything. In reality, American presidents have usually been more reluctant warriors than Manichean militarists; the world’s sole superpower has been more selective, and less war-prone, than its critics charge.
WHAT ABOUT the claim that American militarism has led to disastrous domestic outcomes?
Whatever the domestic ill—underperformance of the economy, rising deficits, sharp partisan polarization, bitter social divisions, and so on—some enterprising analyst has drawn a causal connection back to America’s “endless wars.” Critics of Cold War-era foreign policy made similar arguments that the United States could not contain the Soviet Union without also destroying its economy and political liberties. They were wrong then—America prevailed in the Cold War while also enjoying tremendous prosperity and dramatically advancing civil rights at home—and the link between foreign wars and domestic troubles is similarly tenuous today.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost trillions of dollars, but they have hardly starved a welfare state that has expanded considerably—through Medicare Part D, Obamacare, the Biden administration’s child tax credit, and other reforms—since 2001. Those conflicts have been financed principally through borrowing, but their fiscal impact has been modest compared to the expansion of social programs, the spiraling cost of Social Security and Medicare, and the tax policies pursued (wisely or not) by presidents and their allies in Congress over the past twenty years. The U.S. economy has grown for most of the post-Cold War era, interrupted only by shocks—the dot com bust, the global financial crisis, Covid-19—that had nothing to with the country’s military presence overseas. Meanwhile, the march toward greater domestic equality has continued, with major steps forward on marriage equality and other issues, not to mention the election of the country’s first Black president and vice-president.
To be sure, America is as polarized and divided in 2021 as it has been in at least half a century, and that is truly alarming. But one has to construct a Rube Goldberg-worthy string of improbable connections to pin the blame on foreign wars. After all, domestic strife worsened during Donald Trump’s tenure even though he correctly boasted that he was the first president since Jimmy Carter not to start a new major military intervention overseas—and even though he zealously sought to abandon the commitments he inherited. The Trump years confound the theory that military restraint abroad leads to domestic harmony at home.