Why America’s National Security Establishment Keeps Falling Short

Why America’s National Security Establishment Keeps Falling Short

There’s always much talent among the country’s high-powered foreign policy enthusiasts, but also much delusion in their attempts to unilaterally shape the destiny of other nations by force.


President George W. Bush had assembled what he styled a war cabinet following Al Qaeda’s September 11 attack in 2001. Journalists called its members a “dream team” because of their glittering credentials. For a while, they were celebrities—men like CIA director George Tenet, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the secretary of defense himself, Donald Rumsfeld. Before long, a CIA inspector general’s report blamed Tenet for allowing the agency to be taken by surprise on 9/11; Congress recognized that Wolfowitz had lost count of the American dead in Iraq, the correct number being 51 percent higher than he testified. Rumsfeld would be fired outright in 2006 as Iraq and Afghanistan spiraled downward.

For a while, however, the “dream team” outweighed its critics. On the cusp of invading Iraq, a naysayer might facetiously call Bush’s advisors “the best and the brightest.” But Vietnam had become ancient history. Instead, other officials, think tankers, and reporters nodded their heads in friendly agreement. Yes, how fortunate the nation was to be guided by these extraordinary public servants.


As U.S. forces entered Iraq, Bush spoke of the triumph that had already occurred in Afghanistan: the Taliban had merely been “the first regime to fall in the war on terror.” In fact, a victory parade was planned for New York.

Winning in Iraq was supposed to be as easy as in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld insisted that taking over the Arab world’s most populous oil-producing state would last “six days, six weeks”—at worst, “six months”—before a satisfying departure. Washington wrangled up a coalition of fifty-four nations, with most, like Micronesia, being “tokens” indeed.

U.S. objectives were even vaster than those of Korea and Vietnam. America was to “realign” the Middle East, said one member of the dream team, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. And Iraq—the pivot of such a realignment—was expected to have a thriving tourism industry soon. So promised one academic, Frederik Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, before heading to Kabul in 2009 as part of what the military called its “pundit group.” Basically, it was to do public relations for the top commander, Stanley McChrystal, a legendary special operations officer.

Like before, the silver bullets of high tech were expected to hasten victory, though General McChrystal added, contrary to all evidence, that “political will and demonstrated resolve are the most powerful thing we bring” to the fight. Hopes in drones and computer-laden net-centric warfare mirrored earlier faith in B-29s for Korea and helicopters in Vietnam.

That stew of far-fetched objectives, notions of easy victory, and the naivete of star decisionmakers again brought failure. Bush also pledged a “Marshall Plan” for Iraq and Afghanistan. As disclosed in 2023, Pentagon officials argued that a three-year timeline to reconstruct Iraq was too long. Democratization and all else had to be accomplished in less than a year.

By 2007, Rice, by then secretary of state, concluded of the war in Iraq, “I didn’t think it would be this tough.” She might as well have been complaining about Afghanistan, too.

Reliving the Past

Each time Americans awaken to failure, they hear experts insist that it was the particulars of a war that had gone wrong, not that the overall objective was misconceived.

After the Korean Armistice, for example, MacArthur’s friends on Capitol Hill kept asserting that he should have been allowed to win through escalation with China. Never mind that China itself had barely begun to intervene while 500,000 Red Army soldiers hovered near Russia’s twelve-mile border with North Korea. Still, the argument keeps being repeated.

Kissinger amplified it in his first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957): “We could have achieved a substantial military victory” in Korea had America just committed but four more divisions against China’s PLA (which was limitless). And, in 2016, another eminent professor, who had served as a Bush appointee at the State Department, reflected that MacArthur “would probably“ have pushed the PLA back to the Yalu if only Truman had allowed him to resume the offensive. The Joint Chiefs and the Senate Armed Services Committee knew otherwise at the time.

The time loop continues regarding Vietnam. Fighting a “better war” would have achieved the mission. It’s the title of a seminal book by soldier-scholar Robert Sorley (1999). South Vietnam, this version goes, could have been saved if Westmoreland just hadn’t adopted what the army called a “war of attrition” against the victors of Dien Bien Phu. The better tactics of Westmoreland’s successor, Creighton Abrams, it’s argued, should have been applied from the start.

Similar regrets arise from Iraq and Afghanistan. If only the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority hadn’t demobilized Saddam Hussein’s army overnight in 2002, we hear, or—to believe General David Petraeus, the most political general since MacArthur—a big, last-minute military commitment in 2021 “might have precluded withdrawal entirely“ from Afghanistan.

On balance, how could any of those original propositions that took the United States into war not have been sound? Surely, we merely bungled the follow-through. Therefore, new shibboleths arise as we repeat with a revived certainty that—next time—America will get things right.

While Americans licked their wounds into the winter of 1953-1954, the Eisenhower administration courted trouble.

Vice President Richard Nixon visited Indochina from October 30 to November 4, while touring the Far East. It was the first of his eight visits to Vietnam, the last in 1969. His statements in Saigon and Hanoi were designed to offset France’s disillusionment with what was already a seven-year-long, U.S.-financed war. He intended to quash any inclinations in Paris for a settlement, as had just occurred in Korea.

Eisenhower and Capitol Hill wouldn’t let an armistice without a victory happen twice. To this end, adamant U.S. backing of France’s bloody mountain and jungle campaign continued through the winter of 1954, which the United States chose so confidently to inherit a decade later.

I want them to send more troops,” Ho Chi Minh said to the astonished Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin in 1963 when he was warned about the consequences of defying the Americans. He could not have devised a better strategy to cripple his giant opponent. Washington played into its enemy’s hands when it swamped South Vietnam with a half million men. A dozen years earlier, it had played into China’s when 200,000 GIs, Marines, and South Korean soldiers marched to the Yalu. Ho Chi Minh’s insight about getting the United States to work against itself peaked during the “Global War on Terror.” By then, it was Osama bin Laden’s wishes that were fulfilled when the United States embarked on remaking Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire Middle East.

In Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Collins (Bill Murray) got to escape the time loop, but so far, we are stuck. Anger over the latest “forever wars” shadows the 2024 elections, as do proxy wars and new entanglements. The way out is, first, to accept that the U.S. “national security establishment” is not up to the task of political-military leadership. Yes, the United States won the Cold War. But that was a generation ago, and victory entailed countless diversions, including 100,000 dead on the Pacific Rim.

There’s always much talent among the country’s high-powered foreign policy enthusiasts but also much delusion in their attempts to unilaterally shape the destiny of other nations by force. The examples of winter 2023-2024 include collapsed approaches to Ukraine and the Middle East. Whatever the compelling doctrines of such experts, most of them are winging it when in office, as did earlier high political appointees like Bundy, Kissinger, and Rice.

A lifetime of recurring moral and practical failures can be averted. Steps include a more restrained approach to the nation’s security and political fixes like limiting patronage positions in State, Defense, and other parts of the politico-military bureaucracy. Doing so in no way undercuts U.S. advantages of industrial, financial, commercial, and cultural engagement with the world. On the other hand, failing at a fifth misguided war could be the end of the story.

Derek Leebaert is the author of Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, among other books. He was a founding editor of International Security and is a co-founder of the National Museum of the U.S. Army.