Most Americans believe that their military is the finest in the world, a belief well-founded by several measures. Yet if the U.S. military were a sports team, based on its record in war and when called upon to defend the nation since World War II, it would be ranked in the lowest divisions.
Consider history. The United States won the “big one”: the Cold War. But every time Americans were sent to wars that it started or into combat for reasons that lacked just cause, we lost or failed. Korea was at best a draw, ended not by a peace treaty but a “temporary” truce. Our record in subsequent conflicts was too often no better, and too often worse. Vietnam was an outright and ignominious defeat in which over 58,000 Americans died. George H.W. Bush’s administration deserves great credit in the first Iraq War and in handling the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the Afghanistan intervention begun in 2001 is still going with no end in sight. The Second Iraq War, launched in 2003, was rightly termed a fiasco. Even far smaller interventions — Beirut and Grenada in 1983, Libya in 2011 — failed.
Americans need to know why. Notably, failure was not the fault of the Pentagon. My new book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, analyzes and explains why this record of failure has occurred and why these setbacks, if uncorrected, will continue. Interestingly, the reasons for failure span generations of leaders and apply equally to both political parties, suggesting that somehow this predilection for failure has become part of the national DNA.
Failure begins at the top. Americans elect presidents who, too often, are unprepared, unready and too inexperienced for the responsibilities of arguably the most difficult office in the world. This has led to flawed strategic judgment made worse by an absence of sufficient knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which force is to be used.
President John F. Kennedy tartly observed that there is no school for presidents. Yet both he and his successor Lyndon Johnson became trapped in the Vietnamese quagmire because of poor strategic judgment and a near-total lack of knowledge and understanding of that conflict.
Ronald Reagan wrongly believed he could bankrupt the Soviet Union by engaging in an arms race. Along the way, he blundered into Beirut, which cost the lives of 241 American servicemen blown up in a barracks; and Grenada, where he sought to protect American medical students who were in no danger and to stop the construction of a “Soviet air base” that was in fact a government effort to increase tourism.
It took Bill Clinton 78 days to force Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the killing of Kosovars through a bombing campaign that, if accompanied by the threat of ground forces, might have done the job in hours. George W. Bush invaded Iraq to change the “geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East” by democratizing the region — and produced arguably the greatest American catastrophe since the Civil War. And Barack Obama touched off civil war in Syria by bombing Benghazi, leading to the death of Muramar Qaddafi and regional violence.
Tragically, the U.S. started these wars for reasons that proved wildly wrong, or intervened based on lack of knowledge and understanding that led to failure. While Donald Trump, fortunately, has not suffered a crisis such as 9/11, his strategic judgment and understanding seem as poor as or even worse than his predecessors’.
To prevent or mitigate future failures, we must discard our 20th-century thinking and adopt a new, brains-based approach to strategic judgments. Deterring the Soviet Union was far different from deterring a Russia that has no intent of attacking NATO or al Qaeda and the Islamic State that lack armies and navies. Moreover, our policymakers must have far greater knowledge and understanding of conditions in which force is to be used. And the focus of policy and strategy must be to affect, influence, and even control the will and perception of friends, foes and enemies.
Unless and until Americans recognize why we fail too often in using force and correct these flaws, the chances of future reverses may not be inevitable. But it is highly likely.