What should have been sobering lessons from the more recent and less successful military interventions have tended to be swept aside in favor of the historically based optimism about the utility of force. The “Vietnam War syndrome”—a public hesitance about such interventions after the nation got so badly burned in that war—was largely blown away by the inspiring success of Desert Storm. Although the Iraq War is deeply relevant to the ISIS situation, the lessons of that costly expedition have been compartmentalized and largely lost.
Some who supported that war explain it away as all about a mistake, not to be repeated, concerning nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Donald Trump has tried to inoculate himself by claiming, with some exaggeration, always to have opposed the Iraq War, but such opposition has not deterred him from calling on Washington to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS. Ted Cruz’s attempt to do something similar with his criticisms of neocons has not stopped him from calling for carpet bombing in Syria. Many Republican opponents of Barack Obama cling to the myth that the president snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by implementing the troop withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Bush administration—a myth that disregards both the substantial pace at which the Iraqi civil war was still being fought at the time and the failure of earlier military efforts to resolve the political conflicts that underlie instability in Iraq today.
Beyond all of this is a frequent admonition not to “overreact” to the bad experience of the Iraq War, an admonition voiced so frequently that it has become an overreaction about overreaction. Coupled with that theme are efforts to depict any proposals for more military intervention in the Middle East as much different in cost and duration from the quagmire that the Iraq War became. Typical is the urging by James Jeffrey, ambassador in Baghdad and a White House policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration, to initiate a U.S. ground war against ISIS, which he assures us would be a “short,” “crisp,” “rapid takedown” of the group. Similar spin comes from columnist Richard Cohen, who is more interested in using force against the Assad regime than against ISIS and says that a no-fly zone and “maybe taking a shot or two at a key government installation” would do the job. The relevance of lessons from the Iraq War simply gets defined away with unrealistically sanguine images of what the next war would look like.
Certain other rhetorical dynamics of current debates about the use of force in Syria and Iraq add to the historically based bias in favor of using it. One is the American habit of discussing almost any serious issue overseas as a problem that the United States can and should solve. A related rhetorical asymmetry is the greater appeal of positive, confident-sounding calls for the United States to do just that, compared with the lesser appeal of caution or skepticism about whether the United States really can solve other people’s civil wars. Saying anything that sounds like, “that’s a nasty problem, but given the downsides of our available options, we’ll have to live with it” does not win American political leaders votes.
The public and political appetite for action usually means specifically visible, forceful action. That means that military responses have greater appeal than less visible policy tools, such as behind-closed-doors diplomacy. Amid today’s Middle East security issues, the “war on terror” concept continues to weigh heavily on American debate and foreign-policy discourse. It is a metaphor that has shaped reality. It has led to the false syllogism that if a problem is serious then America is at war, and if America is at war then it needs to use military force to solve the problem. The influence of this line of thinking is heard in the frequent declarations from Republican presidential candidates and others that “we are at war,” notwithstanding the absence of a congressional declaration of war.
A related pseudologic equates leadership with toughness, and toughness with military force. Barack Obama has been especially vulnerable to criticism of his leadership along these lines, given his image as a pedantic law professor who came into office eager to withdraw from existing wars and whose administration has been said to “lead from behind.” The lack of appeal, emotionally as well as politically, of this presidential style has led commentators not normally hostile to Democrats to complain about Obama’s unwillingness to amp up his rhetoric. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post calls him “President Oh-bummer” and says although tough talk won’t defeat terrorists “it will rally a nation.” Milbank’s Post colleague Richard Cohen says Obama’s approach leaves him “empty and cold.” Cohen observes that Obama “is a cautious man who fears his rhetoric running away from him”—an accurate statement about the president’s concerns that also points to an actual process of rhetoric pushing policy, another reason that the use of military force has gone beyond what is in the nation’s best interests.
Other dynamics compound this trend in Washington’s approach to the Middle East. One is the luxury that political opponents have, and incumbent policymakers do not, of sounding appealing themes without having to voice less appealing cautions about long-term complications and consequences. Amid fears of terrorist groups and a presidential election, the rhetorical energy drives predominantly in the direction of more rather than less reliance on military force.
Another factor is the universal human tendency to treat sunk costs as investments. This tendency has especially affected American discourse about Iraq, and all the more so given propagation of the myth that the United States was on the verge of a victory there in 2009. Politicians and military veterans alike relate news about the latest fighting in Iraqi cities to sacrifices that U.S. troops made in the same locales during an earlier phase of the war. Such connections are drawn even though sunk costs really are sunk and past ill-advised expenditures have not bought any current opportunities.
At some level of consciousness the Pottery Barn rule—if you break it, you buy it—has affected American thinking about troublesome military expeditions, adding to the impetus to escalate and extend rather than to retrench and curtail. By itself the rule is laudable and teaches responsibility. The trouble is that the rule tends to get applied only after breakage has occurred. And with Americans thinking of themselves as builders rather than breakers, some commitments have been made with insufficient advance thought about what was likely to be broken.
All of the aforementioned factors have contributed to Washington’s current state of unending warfare and of perpetuating the costly pattern of using military force beyond what careful consideration of U.S. interests would dictate. Among recent military expeditions, the invasion of Iraq remains a glaring example of how not to apply force—blind to the troubles that would spill out once Iraqi pottery got broken and with unrealistically rosy assumptions about how liberalism and democracy would fall into place after a dictator’s ouster. But that war was an extreme case, given the extraordinary absence of any policy process to consider whether launching the war was a good idea and thus insufficient opportunity within the government to question the rosy assumptions and to consider all the possible costs and consequences.
PERHAPS MORE illustrative of the general point about the American bias toward war have been the policies of, and pressures upon, Obama, who by contrast has deliberated meticulously (“dithering,” to some) about applications of military force. He has tried to resist demands to expand the unproductive record of unending warfare. He has succeeded in resisting some, but has succumbed enough to disappoint followers who wanted a president who would be getting Americans out of wars rather than keeping the nation immersed in them. The political pressures from those followers have been much weaker than pressures coming from the opposite direction. Obama has had to deal with a Congress in which one chamber for most of his presidency, and both chambers for his final two years, have been controlled by an opposition party whose foreign policies have been dominated by neoconservatism. His first secretary of state and aspiring successor is more hawkish than he and is part of an element in his own party that favors armed intervention on humanitarian grounds, which was the rationale for the operation in Libya. The perceived trait that Obama, fairly or unfairly, continually has had to counteract is wimpiness, not recklessness.
The administration’s first test was the war in Afghanistan. Long before President Obama entered office, the United States had failed to find an off-ramp. Once the Taliban had been ousted from Kabul and Al Qaeda rousted from its haven, the United States could have opted for an honorable conclusion to its justified military response to a major terrorist attack, before the operation morphed into a nation-building exercise in the graveyard of empires. The more time that passed after the successful ousting and rousting in the first few months of Operation Enduring Freedom, the less honorable any exit would have seemed. Moreover, for Obama in particular, Afghanistan was the “good” war in contrast to the “bad” war in Iraq, which to his credit he had opposed from the beginning. So a complete exit while Afghan factions continued to wage their civil war was not in the cards. The policy response included a surge that always made more domestic political sense than military sense, being too small and quick to accomplish much on the ground. The administration’s response also has come to include a scotching of any idea of an exit in the foreseeable future, an apparent acceptance of indefinite extension of what already is America’s longest war. All this in a country that, notwithstanding the association with 9/11, has taken its place in modern history because of an insurgency more than three decades ago against a client regime of the Soviets. Afghanistan is not inherently destined to be enmeshed in international terrorism, and whatever strategic significance it has is incommensurate with the longest ever U.S. war.