In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Washington toppled regimes and then failed to plan for a new government or construct effective local forces—with the net result being over 7,000 dead U.S. soldiers, tens of thousands of injured troops, trillions of dollars expended, untold thousands of civilian fatalities, and three Islamic countries in various states of disorder. We might be able to explain a one-off failure in terms of allies screwing up. But three times in a decade suggests a deeper pattern in the American way of war.
In the American mind, there are good wars: campaigns to overthrow a despot, with the model being World War II. And there are bad wars: nation-building missions to stabilize a foreign country, including peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. For example, the U.S. military has traditionally seen its core mission as fighting conventional wars against foreign dictators, and dismissed stabilization missions as “military operations other than war,” or Mootwa. Back in the 1990s, the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said, “Real men don’t do Mootwa.” At the public level, wars against foreign dictators are consistently far more popular than nation-building operations.
The American way of war encourages officials to fixate on removing the bad guys and neglect the post-war stabilization phase. When I researched my book How We Fight, I found that Americans embraced wars for regime change but hated dealing with the messy consequences going back as far as the Civil War and southern reconstruction.
Don’t all countries think this way? Interestingly, the answer is no. In modern conflicts, it’s actually pretty rare to insist on regime change. For example, China didn’t demand it in its last major wars, against India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979. Or consider the Gulf War in 1991, when over 70 percent of the American public wanted to march on Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein, compared to just 27 percent of the British public. (In this case, President George H. W. Bush resisted the pressure to escalate to regime change, which is one reason he received little credit for the Gulf War and lost his reelection campaign the following year.)
What about the distaste for stabilization operations? There are certainly plenty of examples in which other countries grew weary of nation-building. The war in Afghanistan isn’t exactly popular in Europe. But many Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians see peacekeeping as a core military task. Japan will only send its forces outside the homeland for peacekeeping missions in places like Cambodia and Mozambique. In a poll in 1995, Canadians said their country’s top contribution to the world was peacekeeping—and not, surprisingly enough, hockey. In Ottawa, there’s even a Peacekeeping Monument celebrating the country’s involvement in stabilization missions. It’s hard to imagine a similar memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.