The official end of the Cold War came in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation. Since then, remarkably, the United States has been at war or engaged in significant conflicts and military interventions in which tens of thousands of its soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have been killed or wounded for over two-thirds of the intervening years. Iraq in 1991; Somalia in 1992-93; the global war on terror and Afghanistan 2001-present; Iraq 2003-present; and Syria and Yemen since 2016 represent a total of 19 of the past 26 years.
Using the end of World War II in 1945 at a starting point and including the Korean War (1950-53) and Vietnam Wars (from 1959 when the first Americans were killed to withdrawal in 1974), Americans have been in battle for 37 of the past 72 years or well over 50 percent. And the record has not been impressive. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was an ignominious defeat vividly portrayed by the poignant image of the last Huey helicopter lifting off the roof of an apartment building in Saigon.
The only outright victory was the first Iraq War in 1991 in which President George H.W. Bush had the sound judgment to limit the objective to ejecting Saddam Hussein and his army from Kuwait and then withdrawing the bulk of our forces. Tragically for the nation, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, presided over arguably the greatest American strategic catastrophe since the civil war – the second Iraq War a conflict that produced the Islamic State and is still being waged today without an end in sight.
Several observations are as dismal as this past history of military failure. First, few Americans are even aware or concerned over how long this nation has been engaged in armed conflicts over the past seven decades. It is quite a staggering record for a country that seems to place great value in its “exceptionalism” and its attempts to spread democracy around the globe.
Second, few Americans even raise the question of why, with what we believe is the greatest military in the world, our record in war and military interventions is so failure prone. And, third, in light of public disinterest, what can be done to ensure success whenever military force is engaged in major conflict or interventions?
Of course, the United States won, or helped win, the most decisive wars of the last century World Wars I and II and the Cold War. Had we waged those wars as we did in Vietnam and Iraq the second time and Afghanistan, the lingua franca of America could have been German, Japanese or Russian. Clearly, those victories overshadowed the more recent and dismal record of our performance since. And, the reasons for these failures and misuses of force are very plain to see.
The major culprit in causing failure has been the inability to apply sound strategic thinking to our policies and strategies. Presidential inexperience and unachievable aspirations are part of the failure to think strategically. President John F. Kennedy was prepared to “pay any price and bear any burden” in the defense of liberty. Vietnam was the test case to halt the fall of dominoes at the Mekong and not the Mississippi River. And George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” was going “to alter the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East,” which it did.
An equal offender was the absence of sufficient knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which we intervened, aggravated by extreme cases of cultural ignorance. Indeed, before Sept. 11, few Americans knew what Sunni and Shia meant or the differences and Afghanistan was a faraway place suitable for filming action movies. It was this combination of unsound strategic thinking and lack of knowledge and understanding that made failure inevitable. What can be done to reverse this unsatisfactory record?
I have argued for a “brains-based approach” to strategic thinking as an antidote. Essential is having sufficient knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which force may be used. Second is acknowledging that 21st century dangers cannot always be solved with 20th century ideas and tools. The world is far too interconnected and interrelated with too much power diffused to so many other actors who can exert influence without having significant amounts of military power.
Finally, we must set outcomes first and work backward in fashioning our strategies and plans. But there is another set of overarching questions: Who shall listen and who shall lead?