Winning Battles, Losing Wars

Can We Still Win Wars?

Given that the United States fields the costliest, most sophisticated, and most lethal military in the history of civilization, that should be a silly question. We have enough conventional and nuclear power to crush any of our enemies many times over. Why then did we seem to bog down in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? The question is important since recently we do not seem able to translate tactical victories into long-term strategic resolutions. Why is that? What follows are some possible answers.

No—We Really Do Win Wars

Perhaps this is a poorly framed question: the United States does win its wars—if the public understands our implicit, limited strategic goals. In 1950 we wanted to push the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and succeeded; problems arose when Gen. MacArthur and others redefined the mission as on to the Yalu in order to unite the entire Korean peninsula, a sort of Roman effort to go beyond the Rhine or Danube. Once we redefined our mission in 1951 as one more limited, we clearly won in Korea by preserving the South.

In Vietnam, the goal of establishing a viable South was achieved by 1974. Congress, not the president or the military, felt the subsequent peace-keeping commitments and air support were too costly. They allowed a renewed Northern invasion that led to a second and lost war, and then were surprised that the North Vietnamese proved to be not campus radicals but hardcore Stalinists.

Panama, Grenada, and Serbia were successful small enterprises. In the first Gulf War, the strategic aim was to oust Saddam from Kuwait—or so we said. That succeeded, though it did not solve the problem of what Saddam would in the future do with his vast oil revenues. In the second war, the mission was to remove him, birth a democracy, and then leave Iraq better than before. That more ambitious aim too succeeded—not, however, without enormous costs.

Our strategic objective in Afghanistan was to oust the Taliban and ensure that it did not return to host terrorists on Afghan soil. The former mission was done over a decade ago, the latter hinges on the Afghans themselves after we leave. We vowed to rid Libya of Gaddafi and we did—and did not exactly promise that what followed would be immediately better than what we removed. In such special pleading, the U.S. has won its wars as it has defined them. Note the great success of the Cold War that ended with the destruction of the Soviet Empire.

Not So Fast

But wait—North Korea was on the ropes and now over a half-century later still threatens our interests, and with nukes no less. Should not the destruction of that system have been the real aim of the Korean War? North Vietnam united the country under a communist government, whatever way you cut it. Iraq was a mess, and its democracy may in time prove no more than an Iran-backed Shiite autocracy. In Afghanistan, does anyone think our Afghan partners will keep out the Taliban after our departure? Are the Libyan riffraff that took over all that better than Gaddafi as they kill tribal rivals, hunt down blacks, and desecrate military cemeteries? What exactly were we doing in Lebanon and what did we do after terrorists killed 241 of our people?

Strategy, What Strategy?

Why, then, does the use of American military forces not guarantee sure victory? The most obvious answer ib why we argue over the results of our interventions is an inability to articulate our strategic objectives—what exactly do wish to see follow from our use of force and for how long and at what cost? Do we wish to rid the world of Bashar al-Assad? We could do that quite easily and probably without ground troops. But would the region be more or less stable? Would Iran suffer a blow or find ways to fund more terrorists? Would the collateral damage from funding insurgents or bombing be worse or not as bad as the current Assad toll? Would the insurgents prove reasonable, or more like those in Egypt and Libya—or even worse? Many of our problems seem to hinge on explaining to the public what we wish to do, why so, how, at what cost it is to be accomplished, and what we want things to look like when we’re through.