On a recent visit to Moab, Utah, I saw a T-shirt with a picture of a Jeep stuck in a gap between two rock formations and a caption: "Confidence is the feeling you have before you fully understand the situation."
If you still brim with self-assurance despite hopelessly stranding your vehicle, you may have to repeat the mistake a few times before confidence yields to comprehension. That's also the case with members of Congress and other fans of intervention who call on the Obama administration to use force in Syria or Iran.
They always make such ventures sound quick, low-risk and ordained to succeed. You can believe that, if you erase from your mind everything that's happened in the American wars of the 21st century.
We've fought three: Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. What they have in common is that each time, we scored a stunning victory -- only to find out that victory was a brief mirage on the road to defeat.
We got a reminder of this when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington recently asking for military aid to reverse the country's slide into civil war. Al-Qaida, supposedly vanquished by the U.S. surge of 2007, has rebounded in a big way. In fact, the country has reverted to the bloody chaos that prompted the surge.
"Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006, complete with increasing numbers of horrific, indiscriminate attacks by Iraq's al-Qaida affiliate and its network of extremists," wrote Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq, in Foreign Policy. "Add to that the ongoing sectarian civil war in Syria … and the situation in Iraq looks even more complicated than it was in 2006 and thus even more worrisome."
The campaign he led under George W. Bush was supposed to not only crush the insurgency but give the government the chance to become more inclusive and democratic as it forged reconciliation between warring sectarian factions. Maliki's Shiite-dominated regime, however, passed up the opportunity.
One foreign aid worker told The Economist magazine, "At the moment, what fuels the conflict the most is the presence of central-government security forces in Sunni areas, where they arrest young men by the hundreds, torture them and then release them back after money is paid." Violence is now at the highest level in five years, with an average of more than 20 deaths a day in bombings and other attacks.
Afghanistan originally was a surprise not because it went badly but because it went so well. Attacking shortly after 9/11, the United States needed only a few weeks to rout Taliban government forces and their al-Qaida confederates.
In hindsight, that would have been a good time to begin our departure. But we stayed on, hoping to create conditions favorable to stability, human rights and the rule of law. Twelve years later, we're still bogged down fighting jihadists.
President Hamid Karzai, whom we helped bring to power, has staged a carnival of corruption, including massive vote fraud in his 2009 re-election. On human rights, the watchdog group Freedom House gives Afghanistan a rating of 6 -- with 7 being the worst possible score. Karzai recently charged that the U.S.-led coalition effort has produced "a lot of suffering" but "no gains because the country is not secure."
Things are bound to get worse once the American military withdraws the last of its combat units. Though they managed to hold the Taliban to a stalemate during this year's fighting season, reported The New York Times, "the Afghans were unable to make significant gains and, worse, suffered such heavy casualties that some officials called the rate unsustainable."
Libya? The security environment there is usually characterized as total anarchy, which is unfair to anarchists. Last month, the prime minister was kidnapped by one of the many militias that operate with impunity. In the end, he was rescued -- not by government forces but by another militia.
Our military help in the removal of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi turned a country that posed no threat to us into a lawless haven for terrorists, including al-Qaida. Instead of making the U.S. more secure, we have done the opposite.
Using military force, we should have learned, is like taking a Jeep off-road in the Utah desert. It's important to know what it can do -- and even more important to know what it can't.