War

American Wars, Won and Lost

Is the U.S. too confident about its military prowess?

|

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.

NEXT: Brickbat: If This is the Express

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. 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.

    At least if a Republican is elected in 2016 there will again be focus on the massive failures of American foreign policy. Libya is considered to be a success, it seems. What the fuck?

    1. I think the left considers it a success because we managed to fuck up Libya without putting ‘boots on the ground’. And also criticizing Obama is racist.

      1. Yes, look at Iraq as a resounding success. We sent in a 200,000 soldier peacekeeping unit at a cost of over $1 trillion and get an Islamist government allied with Iran and Syria while they are still blowing each other up with suicide bombs daily.

        Just a few “birth pangs” of democracy there as Condi said.

        1. BUSHPIGS!!1111!!!CHRISTFAGS!!!!

          Fuck you’re an idiot.

          1. You’re a Team Red hack.

            Libya was brilliant compared to Iraq. Enough Libyans were sick of Qaddafi to start an armed uprise and we nudged them over the finish line so they could rid the world of a tyrant. The same model should have been used in Iraq but Dickless Cheney wanted a full scale US occupation and permanent control there.

            1. Pro tip, moron: Criticizing Obama does not equal defending BOOOOSH!!11!!!!

              Now go screech and fling shit somewhere else, fuckwad.

            2. They were both disasters of different scale. Both TEAMs were completely on board with both, and both deserve the blame.

              1. Oh, no, Spoonman, you criticized Democrats! You are clearly a Team Red hack!!11!!!

            3. Look, holding up one piece of Stupid and comparing it to a bigger piece of Stupid only shows:

              1) Your own team hackery.
              2) Your blindness to Stupid.

              There was NO FUCKING REASON to bring up the stupidity of Iraq on this thread. None. You brought it up out of the blue to serve your own Team interests.

              And yet you’re amazed when we brush you off as a troll.

              Unreal.

              1. I’m amazed that people still let it push their buttons.

            4. Enough Libyans were sick of Qaddafi to start an armed uprise and we nudged them over the finish line so they could rid the world of a tyrant. The same model should have been used in Iraq but

              You’re asserting that anarchy is preferable to (relative) stability in Iraq, presumably because it would have been cheaper and more easily accomplished.

              Which I find odd, because it has become axiomatic for the left to blame the rise of alQaeda on anarchy in Afghanistan and further assert that the US caused that anarchy by taking the cheap way out after the Soviet withdrawl.

              1. The same model should have been used in Iraq

                In other words we should have gone straight ahead and turned Iraq into a giant feudal rumble pit for every tribal faction and country in and around Iraq. In other words PB is leaping for the Dumber Than Dubya ring.

              2. Anarchy? You keep using that word but I don’t think it means what you think it means.

            5. You’re a Team Red hack.

              Libya was brilliant compared to Iraq.

              He accuses someone of fanboy Team Red hackery and then proceeds to paint himself as a Team Blue fanboy.

        2. See, Democrats are so much smarter. They don’t blow $1 trillion on bullshit wars that make the situation worse…

          …they blow $1 trillion on stimulus packages that make the situation worse.

          1. Great point!!

          2. Or Dems blow millions on a website that doesnt work.

  2. 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.

    As if the Obama administration needs goading for interventionism and isn’t itself still brimming with smug self-assurance.

    1. After all, if there’s one thing Obama does well, it’s kill people.

      At a distance. Through numerous layers of proxies.

  3. And yet, isn’t Iraq safer than the worst cities of the US?

    I remember a recent listing of the top 50 most dangerous cities in the world. My home, St. Louis, was one ahead of Mosul, Iraq. And we weren’t even the worst US city on the list, behind New Orleans and Detroit. And Chicago is up there as well.

    1. I’m not sure if this should be seen as a success of American foreign policy or a failure of American domestic policy.

      Maybe we should spend more time and energy focusing on violence in America’s cities as we do in cities halfway around the world.

  4. Well, obviously because Iraq doesn’t have any liberal Democrats.

  5. Speaking of American wars won and lost, people across the political spectrum are fairly stunned that Obama won’t be personally attending the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

    You would think that Obama of all presidents would want to take part in such an event, wouldn’t you? Is he worried that some dead confederate soldiers are going to rise from the grave and kill him or something? I suppose at this point nothing this guy does should surprise me anymore.

    1. Is he worried that some dead confederate soldiers are going to rise from the grave and kill him or something?

      That would make an awesome zombie movie, by the way.

        1. Needz trailer.

          $1,300 budget. Heh.

      1. HM, I would trust you to turn out an amazing script for that… I would ask for a short cameo, maybe shooting Zombie Stonewall Jackson?

          1. *Goes to find a cache of Minne balls and powder*

            1. It’s *Mini?* balls.

              Minnie balls are what the trans Minnie mouse has.

              1. (to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”)

                Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls
                Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls
                Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls
                Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls Balls

              2. You mean the tans *Mickey* Mouse – Minnie is the name he performs under.

    2. From the editorial:

      “The National Park Service recently said the president is instead sending Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — a former oil, banking and outdoor-gear accessory executive who was born in England.

      “With all due respect to Ms. Jewell, she is an unacceptable substitute for the president. If crucial matters of state demand the president’s attention that day, the least he could do is send the vice president.”

      Um, no, sending Biden would be *less* respectful than sending the Cabinet officer who oversees the Gettysburg park.

      “I was thinking as I came over here today, why am I the first person in my family to be Vice President? Then I thought that this nation cannot survive half slave and half free, and that we shouldn’t think about what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. And in conclusion, this country should have a new birth of freedom. Thank you.”

      1. Biden’s speech needs way more faux pas.

        1. “I remember when my family and I were huddled around the wood stove watching the Gettysburg Address on TV. I was never more proud to be a Democrat just like Lincoln. Later, when I heard that Oswald shot Lincoln, I was devastated and I resolved to go into politics myself to stand up for the common man…”

          1. Two thumbs up.

    3. Maybe Obama isn’t giving the speech because he’s afraid his masterful rhetoric would make Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address look pedestrian by comparison.

      Or maybe Obama is protesting Lincoln’s violations of civil liberties and his centralizing tendencies.

      Because Lincoln was the Worst President Ever (TM).

    4. You would think that Obama of all presidents would want to take part in such an event, wouldn’t you?

      Not really,

      He won’t be the center of attention so why would he go?

    1. But isn’t she escalating too fast? This is the same error the Norks have made in foreign policy – once you get too high on the outrageous scale, it fades to “oh, that again” doesn’t it?

      1. I trust her to law low for awhile before announcing her plans for sex change surgery into hermaphroditism.

        1. The only card she has left to play is making a public repentance and joining the Family Research Council as atonement for her sins.

          1. She could always emulate the porn star Chrissie Moran and turn into a born again Christian.

            1. Jenna Presley did the same thing.

        2. Miley will get a sex change and join Delta Force.

    2. I’m starting to really like this girl

    3. Here is another example of a rocker going way over the line.

      http://instagram.com/p/ga91wyNadD/#

    4. Fitchburg? I had to go there once. It’s a shithole — even by Massachusetts standards.

    5. Twerking with a dwarf? Does the dwarf still have his nose?

  6. Meanwhile we are still engaged in a ground war in SE Asia.

    1. SW.

      “Didn’t I tell you ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’?”

      /Vezzini

        1. Southern North Dakota!

  7. I was all set to criticize this article based of the subtitle, and then the author spent the body of the work making my points; that the Military’s prowess is about as potent as anyone could wish, but the people choosing the missions simply don’t have a clue what military prowess can and can’t do.

    We can probably take down any national government on Earth in a matter of a few weeks; even Mainland China. What we cannot do is control what would replace those governments, or even hold that territory in the long term.

    1. Yea you’d think we’d learn that lesson from past countries that tried to control everybody a short list would include Rome, Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany, the USSR and now the USA.

      1. But we’re different you see because of… freedom?

  8. Seriously, on Veterans’ Day no less, you decide to post an article that is rightly critical of the last decade of American foreign policy, and then slap on a sensationalist sub-title faulting the Military and questioning their ability? You’re the worst piece of crap there is, Chapman! And as a veteran, you’re welcome!

    1. I took it to be that he was essentially saying that after a decade of heatedly debated military & Foreign Policy, the Power Elites STLL have very little grasp of what it is that the military does, and what they can and cannot do. NOT the military’s fault.

    2. I like the not-so-subtle implication that if the military was more effective the foreign policy would fine.

      Because the top-men had it right all along, it’s just those worthless soldiers that screwed it all up!

    3. Um… most writers don’t choose their titles or subtitles. Editors do and usually these days make them as click-baity as possible.

      That said: 1) there’s nothing really “anti-military” in either the title or the subtitle; and 2) you do realize that it’s possible to separate the “military” from “soldiers”, the people whom we’re commemorating today?

  9. I was encouraged by the general lack of a public war boner over the possibility of invading Syria this year. Still, I’m not sure if that’s because people are tired of funding foreign military boondoggles out of a mature sense of the horrendous cost and violence that entails, or if they think they’re boring. Perhaps, after watching Desert Storm 3, (or are we up to 5 or 6 now?), people yawn, and want something else.

    I’m sure our politicians would much rather have us sing America: Fuck Yeah while we cheer a ticker tape parade they’re riding in while the local national guard flies over, oblivious to how much we’re paying for it. And what better way to ignore horrible domestic policy than hand-wringing over hobgoblins in a foreign land, trying to kill us all, if not for the brave ruling class. Funny how they never seem too terrified to go out in public. Must be because of the great job they’re doing.

    1. This. The Plebs get easily bored. The Wars were exciting; they were something new to watch. They give people a collective importance. I mean sure, 9/11, but we go to war every 20 years or so pretty consistently anyway. And then people get bored with that, and the anti-war movement inevitably becomes vogue. It becomes exciting to rally, protest and generally feel important again, and then it too becomes passe.

      But yeah, everything has been blamed for the Wars from evily corporations to lying Booosh when in all reality they delivered the American public just what they wanted. The American People are just as mendacious as their leaders. Neither the war or anti war movements were every really about anything other than breaking boredom and reinforcing self importance.

  10. I think the uncomfortable fact is that there really isn’t a solution to the whole security question in the modern world. I mean really, what should have been our answer to 9/11? Chapman makes the suggestion that we invade, bomb and gererally fuck up a country and then “begin our departure”. Does he really think that invading, destablilizing and by proxy impoverishing an entire region isn’t going to breed even more terrorists, or isn’t qoing to make people hate us even more? Wouldn’t that have just been a shortcut to what we have now in Iraq?

    If the answer is no military action whatsoever, the only other “solution” is the increasingly familiar security state, which we all know simply promotes a very false sense of security at the cost money, privacy and liberty. So when it comes to and “answer” to terrorism and security, that’s why people claim Libertarians don’t have a solution. Because there isn’t an answer. It’s a fucked up world and people die all the time. Get over it.

    But have a White House Press Secretary say that and watch how it pans out. People just like being lied to.

  11. I read a book recently about the development of U.S. military doctrine for the Army. The author reveals that all of the reports and data on counter-insurgency warfare that distilled bitter lessons so painfully learned over a decade on the ground in Vietnam was deliberately destroyed. The generals are still thinking in terms of fighting a large army in a conventional war. Hard to believe after the past five decades.

    That unwillingness to confront the facts about the current use of war in our world has convinced me that the U.S. military is out of touch.

    That view has recently been reinforced when I read the reports of new, multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers being launched. I think that aircraft carriers have a role to play in establishing air superiority over hostile forces, but the big carriers are just floating targets.

  12. The Japanese called this conditioning of the mind, “Victory Disease”.

    Its has a mortality rate of 100%….

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.