The U.S. is destined to keep overlearning the lessons of the last conflict.
There’s a specific reason it is so hard to be president—in normal circumstances—and why most incumbents look decades older when they leave the job than when they began. The reason is that the only choices normal presidents get to make are the impossible ones—decisions that are not simply very close calls on the merits, but that are guaranteed to lead to tragedy and bitterness whichever way they go.
Take Barack Obama’s famed choice not to back up his “red line” promise in Syria, which was a focus of Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” Atlantic cover story two years ago. The option Obama chose—not intervening in Syria—meant death and suffering for countless thousands of people. The option he rejected—intervening—would have meant death and suffering for countless thousands of the same people or others. Agree or disagree on the outcome, any such decision is intellectually demanding and morally draining. Normal presidents have to make them, one after another, all day long. (Why don’t they get any easier choices? Because someone else has made all of those before they get to the president.) Obama’s decision to approve the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound turned out to be a tactical and political success. When he made it, he had to weigh the possibility that it could end in world-publicized failure—like Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages in Iran, which ended in chaos, and which Carter later contended was what sealed his fate in his re-election run.