In the first Gulf War, one could argue that we prematurely stopped the four-day ground war (for a variety of reasons), did not destroy the Republican Guard, let Saddam Hussein off the hook, ensured 12 years of a subsequent no-fly zone and a future confrontation, and allowed thousands of Shiites and Kurds to be butchered. Yet in the second war, flush with a seemingly quick victory in Afghanistan and a subsequent legitimate Karzai government installed quickly afterwards, we rushed into Iraq thinking that an equally rapid victory over existing authoritarians (correct) would lead to an equally rapid transition to a consensual government and a cessation of violence (incorrect).
Given U.S. perceptions of victory in Iraq, by the end of 2004 Syria had vacated Lebanon, Gadhafi had given up his WMD program, Dr. Khan was under house arrest in Pakistan, and Iran was worried. But by 2006, with perceptions of U.S. defeat, Syria was sending jihadists into Iraq, no others had followed Gadhafi’s lead, Pakistan was back to its calculated bellicosity, and Iran was supplying lethal new IEDs in Iraq.
Athens never quite learned when to pull back, consolidate, and walk away — most notably after its allies’ loss at the battle of Mantinea and its own victory at Arginusae. Yet once Sparta had assembled the Peloponnesian League, Thebes, the Western Greeks, and Persia into a de facto grand alliance, an absolute Athenian victory, after two decades of massive losses, was impossible.
2. How did the North Win the Civil War?
Remember, the eventual challenge for the Union was not just defeating Confederate forces in the field, but, in line with Lincoln’s growing agenda, destroying them so as to force a capitulation of the South. The North eventually thought it had to occupy an area the size of Western Europe and completely remake Southern society — quite different objectives from a series of tactical victories in or near the border states to coerce the Confederacy to reconsider secession. That ambitious reality explains why the jubilation of summer 1863 (e.g., Vicksburg and Gettysburg) led to the disasters of summer 1864 (e.g., Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Petersburg, etc.) as Grant tried to destroy Lee and occupy Richmond (a much different task than the Army of the Potomac defeating Lee in a set battle and forcing him to retreat from Pennsylvania).
Ultimately, the North won not just by superior manpower and material resources (although it certainly had all that), but through an inspired four-part strategy that nonetheless might well have not been enough to win Lincoln the election of 1864 without the fall of Atlanta in early September: blockade the southern coasts and strangle the Confederate economy; let Grant tie down and bleed Lee; allow Sherman to wage a vast war of mobility behind Confederate lines to wreck infrastructure, and demoralize and humiliate the South, as he eventually neared Lee’s rear; keep pressure on subsidiary Confederate armies through gifted subordinate generals like Sheridan and Thomas.
The problem the North faced early on in the war was not whether it could defeat the Confederacy, but rather whether it could lose vast amounts of blood and treasury in reabsorbing the Confederacy without riot and rebellion at home or the defeat of the war party in 1864. William Tecumseh Sherman best understood the Union dilemma, and realized that while the North might afford the huge losses that Grant endured in weakening Lee and pressuring Richmond, it most certainly could not replicate that bloody strategy simultaneously in the West — hence Sherman’s preference to march, outflank, isolate, ruin, free slaves, target the plantation elite, and take cities that proved not so much an antithesis to Grant as a complement. And whereas the South throughout the war had the most brilliant cavalry generals and division leaders (Nathan Bedford Forrest was an authentic military genius), and until 1863 has superior supreme command, by 1864 the belated emergence of Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Thomas to top posts finally ensured Union military leadership better than the Confederacy’s.