How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War
Assistant Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney's talk, based on a forthcoming book, explores the American experience of war since the Revolution. The project explains why people back some conflicts, but not others, how the United States fights, why Washington wins and loses, and how Americans remember and learn from war. His talk contrasts the American experience of war in two types of military conflict: interstate war (where we fight against other countries) versus nation-building (where we fight against insurgents). Inspired by idealism and vengeance, we view interstate wars like World War II as a glorious crusade to overthrow tyrants. These same cultural forces, however, mean that we see nation-building in places like Somalia or Afghanistan as a wearying quagmire. In other words, Americans are addicted to regime change and allergic to nation-building.
Dominic Tierney: Thank you. Thank you.
Alright well, thank you Cindy for that extremely overly kind introduction. Thanks everyone for coming. I'm particularly delighted there's so many students here. Only some of whom are here under duress of various kinds. Some of you, voluntary, which is even more appeal.
I want to talk today about America's experience of war, and about American society and war. A good place to start in order to investigate these topics is with the mall in Washington, D.C. So, sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out toward the Capitol Building, we can see a vision of how war is meant to be. Behind us is a marble Abraham Lincoln enthroned in his temple. Straight ahead lie the Reflecting Pool and the World War II Memorial. The shimmering water bridges America's two good wars, to save the Union and free the slaves, from 1861 to 65 and to defeat fascism from 1941 to 1945. The fifty- six pillars on the giant arches of the World War II memorial signify America's common purpose when the greatest generation united to crush evil.
Anchoring the military vista at the far end of the mall is a statue of Civil War general, Ulysses S. Grant. On a platform of Vermont marble, Grant sits atop his horse, calm amid the fury of battle. A triumphant tale unfolds before us with World War II book ended by the Civil War titans, Lincoln and Grant. It's a panorama of glory and victory, a narrative of liberation through force of arms, freedom born, global freedom redeemed. This is what war ought to look like. Decisive victory, regime change, and the transformation of the world. A magnificent crusade.But if we broaden the view from the Lincoln Memorial, our peripheral vision reveals a less comfortable military narrative. Hidden away behind trees on the right hand side is a memorial to the 1950 to 53 Korean War. This was a most splendid crusade. There was no decisive victory. There was no regime change, or transformation of the world. Instead, the Unites States fought its opponents to a draw. For Americans, it was bleak ordeal, and a profoundly confusing experience. The raw immediacy of the Korean War Veteran's Memorial is utterly different than the abstract triumphalism of the World War II Memorial. The depiction of Korea focuses on the human experience of battle. A group of 19 men, cast in stainless steel, slug their way uphill, sorrowful and exhausted, burdened with baggage, and shivering under ponchos from the elements.
Meanwhile, concealed under trees to the left is a testament to America's tragedy in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. This is what war ought not to look like. The United States spent years engaged in a futile nation building effort in South Vietnam, trying to stabilize a weak government, while battling a shadowy insurgency. With each step forward Washington seemed to get further bogged down in the quagmire.
The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is a sunken black wall inscribed with the names of the fallen. A knife, cut into America's body exposes a dark wound. To read the names of the dead you have to physically descend into the gloom. The memorial does not commemorate the purpose of the war, but instead honors the sacrifice of the troops. There was no united home front to celebrate. Then in 1969, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered on the mall to protest against Vietnam in the largest anti war rally in American history. We can see here from these memorials that for soldiers and civilians alike war is often a traumatic experience. As a result, it's the subject of overwhelming interest, which is prone to dispelling of almost as much ink as blood.
So, how do we unlock the puzzle of American thinking about this most emotive and critical of subjects? As you can see in this list of some of the major American uses of force in the last 150 years, America's wars have been incredibly diverse in respect to the objectives, the casualties, the success, the location, and so on. I will argue that the key to understanding America's experience of war is to distinguish between two types of military conflict to soon be mentioned. The first being interstate war where we fight against other countries like World War II, the second being nation building missions where we fight against insurgents like in Vietnam, Somalia, or Afghanistan. So you can see on this slide the missions indicated in red are the nation building missions, and the missions that are in black represent interstate wars. Pretty much all of America's uses of force can be put into one of these two categories.
I will argue that American's are addicted to regime change and allergic to nation building. In other words, the type of war that we are comfortable fighting is incredibly narrow. The enemy must be a state and not an insurgency, and we need to march on the enemy's capital and topple the government. As soon as Washington deviates from this model, the glue binding together public support for the war effort starts to come unstuck. This insight explains why we back some conflicts but not others, how we fight, why we win and lose, and how we learn from war. Now, of course, when I refer to Americans, we are describing a general tendency rather than an absolute rule. The United States of course is an incredibly diverse society which has changed in fundamental ways over time. In every conflict there are exceptions to the crusade and quagmire traditions, that as you will see, these traditions represent very powerful sets of beliefs.
Now, the rest of the talk has five sections. First, I'm going to discuss the crusade tradition. Second, I'm going to introduce the quagmire tradition. Third, I'm going to show how these traditions help us understand American history and current politics. Fourth, I'll explain the causes of the traditions. Fifth, I'll describe some of the cost and benefits associated with these schools of thought.
Let's start by considering America's experience of interstate war. Where U.S. ground forces fight against another country's military, like the Spanish American War, or the World Wars, or the Gulf War, or the initial phases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I call American thinking about interstate war the crusade tradition. Now this tradition has two elements. First, it captures American view of the proper objectives of war. We're not interested in fighting for limited or narrow goals such as capturing a province and then signing a negotiated peace. The fitting aim of interstate war is majestic. Compel unconditional surrender, over throw the enemy regime, create a new democratic government, and transform the world. We often begin interstate wars fighting defensively for the status quo, but soon a crusader wave swells up, and we end up battling for a new world order. The pattern is striking. The U.S. public supported the goal of regime change in all ten interstate wars since the Civil War. There are a couple of minor qualifications to that, but the rule basically holds.
So, if the true objectives of interstate war are majestic, how are we to achieve these goals? Put simply, Americans want to employ all necessary force to win. In peace time, few countries have been as vocal as the United States in exhorting the need to protect civilians from the scourge of war, but once battle is joined, restraints on the use of force tend to fall away, and American's prove quite willing to target civilians. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, no country has engaged in the mass killing of civilians in interstate war in as many separate occasions as the United States. Most interstate war ends, the crusader wave crashes, attention reverts to domestic affairs, and the public's interest in transforming the world abruptly washes away. Following years of intense preoccupation with brutal conflict, people try to blank out memories of the fighting entirely. So, we tend to see interstate wars as crusades, favoring all necessary force and maximum war ends.
What about the other major use of force, nation building? Nation building refers to interventions inside another country to create a stable and democratic government, or defeat insurgents. For instance, Vietnam, Somalia or the later phases of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Interstate war in other words is about destroying an enemy state. Nation building is about constructing a friendly state.
So, how do we experience nation building missions? Well, we don't see them as crusades, that's for sure. Common metaphors for nation building include sand trap, swamp, quicksand, morass, sink hole, and bottomless pit. These images all suggest a messy operation where the objectives are vague, withdrawal is difficult, and each stride forward only gets the United States further entrenched.
The most popular image, however, is quagmire, meaning an area of boggy ground whose surface yields under the tread. Back in 1900, Mark Twain described the U.S. nation building mission in the Philippines as, quote, "A quagmire, from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater." In 2009, fast forward a little bit, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert entitled his piece quote, "The Afghan Quagmire", depicting a war that quote, "long ago turned into a quagmire."
I call the American response to nation building the quagmire tradition. Put simply, we just don't like nation building. Opinion polls consistently show that the public is much more comfortable with the idea of battling against an enemy state rather than using force to combat insurgents, or build democracy inside another country. The American military is also a traditionally skeptical about nation building, and crucially, when the United States does begin nation building, Americans almost always see the outcome as a failure.
Since the nineteenth century, the United States has launched literally dozens of diverse nation building missions, everywhere from South Carolina to South Vietnam, but they have one striking feature in common. Almost every operation was viewed as a disastrous quagmire. Over time, perceptions of failure erode support for a mission, encourage withdrawal, and make us weary about future interventions.
So, in the American mind nation building and interstate war are polar opposite experiences. War against insurgents is hell. Campaigns against other countries are a hell of a war. Consider some of the striking differences in how we perceive and experience these two types of conflicts. Interstate wars are good wars. Nation building missions are bad wars. Interstate wars unify the public. Nation building divides American opinion. Interstate wars are usually seen as victories, nation building is usually seen as a defeat. Interstate wars inspires a songbook of stirring anthems, like Battle Hymn of the Republic. Nation building missions inspire protest songs. Interstate wars unearth a legion of heroes, like Grant, Jackson, Pershing, MacArthur, Patton, Schwarzkopf. Nation building generates almost no heroes. In interstate war, battle field defeat can stir a redoubling of efforts. In nation building missions, it produces calls for withdrawal. In interstate wars when the enemy kills civilians, like the Nazi's did, it proves the righteousness of our cause. In nation building missions, if insurgents commit atrocities, like in Iraq, Washington is blamed, and it signals that we're losing. In interstate wars if american soldiers kill non-combatants, it's considered collateral damage. In a nation building mission, it's a war crime, testifying to the immorality of the conflict.
So, I'm going to now very briefly show how these two traditions help us understand American history, and I'd be happy to discuss any of the cases I'm going to mention in more detail in Q and A. In the book, I spent 300 pages on this. I've reduced this to about 5 to 10 minutes.
America's wars don't repeat themselves, but they do rhyme, producing a cadence in the nation's encounter with battle. Crusades like the civil war, the world wars and the gulf war, all follow similar enthusiastic beat. Nation building operations in Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq hit the same weary notes. If America's military experience is an epic song, each verse has a predictable rhythm. When the first shot is fired, the public rallies around the flag. Crusading enthusiasm sweeps the nation until the great dictator is overthrown. But once the United States begins nation building in conquered land, hopes quickly turn to regret.
The crusade tradition was born amidst the bayonets and stockades of the Civil War, America's first crusade. Although Northerners would have balked at the label, the Civil War was a defacto interstate war. In other words, the union was effectively fighting against another state, one that created its own Constitution, raised armies, and was underpinned by a sense of nationalism. So, what was the objective of the northern war effort? Lincoln initially outlined limited war aims to restore federal authority while avoiding what he called a remorseless evolutionary struggle. But as the fighting progressed, a crusader wave rose up, and northern opinion shifted in favor of his zealous campaign to refashion the confederacy by emancipating the slaves.
Over time, the northern population and its leaders lost their inhibitions about targeting civilians. As the Civil War slid closer toward total war, Lincoln concluded that the great cause could not be persecuted with quote, "Elder-Stalk squirts charged with rosewater." Civilians were not directly slaughtered, rather they were stripped of the means to live, with towns, farms, barns, and mills in the south all torched. One historian estimates 50 thousand civilians died in the Civil War.
Victory in the Civil War prompted America's first nation building mission, which you can see here on the right. Southern reconstruction. Congress placed the southern states under military rule. Federal troops acted like modern day peace keepers, maintaining order, setting up new governments, monitoring elections, and overseeing the welfare of the freed blacks. Reconstruction was soon viewed in the north as a quagmire with no end in sight. Southern republican governments were perceived as corrupt and bumbling, while the carpet baggers, those northerners who had gone south as a part of reconstruction, were seen as sullied charlatans who packed their few belongings in a carpet bag and headed south to exploit the exhausted dixie. Not a single popular hero emerged from the entire decade long mission in the south. The London Observer noted the change in mood since the Civil War. Quote, "People who risk their lives and property for a cause which they believed to be holy now talk dubiously and hesitatingly of the results of emancipation." In its ark of hope and disillusionment, the mission established a template for future nation building operations through Iraq and beyond. Quagmire was in turn followed by crusade.
When United States locked horns with Spain in 1898. As in the Civil War, a crusading spirit overtook the nation, and U.S. objectives became increasingly majestic over time. A conflict that began with the goal of regime change in Cuba ended with the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The United States went to sleep a republic, and it woke up an empire. But the victory over Spain landed the United States in another nation building mission. A sustained counter insurgency war against Filipino nationalists. As with southern reconstruction, Americans increasingly perceive nation building in the Philippines as a quagmire. Even cheerleaders of expansion like Theodore Roosevelt were soon disillusioned. Quote, "In the excitement of the Spanish War, people wanted to take the islands. They had an idea they would be a valuable possession. Now, they think they are of no value." Roosevelt eventually called the Philippines "our heel of Achilles in the Pacific, our liability that should be made independent at an early date."
The United States launched its third crusade in World War I. Before Washington entered the great war, Wilson called for a peace without victory, which left no side humiliated, but once the United States began fighting, the campaign evolved into a democratic crusade against autocracy, and a quest to end all war. During the campaign there was broad public support for joining a new league of nations and for demanding an unconditional surrender of Germany. American's were also willing to fight a hard war, and overwhelmingly supported the allied starvation blockade of the central powers, which caused one million extra civilian deaths in Germany and Austria Hungary through malnutrition and disease.
The great crusade of World War I was not the only military campaign in this era. Disillusionment with the mission in the Philippines had put pay to American imperialism. But the United States did not abandon nation building entirely. From 1898 to 1934 there were over two dozen interventions in the Caribbean, known as the Banana Wars. Like southern reconstruction and the Philippines, nation building in the Caribbean became widely seen as a futile quagmire. The Denver News described the exit of U.S. forces from Haiti quote, "Neither the Haitians, the American public, nor the Marines themselves, will feel very badly about it if they never go back."
After Franklin Roosevelt won election as President in 1932, he announced the United States would act as a good neighbor by bringing the curtain down on these missions. Quote, "The definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention." In our mind, World War II was the perfect crusade, the good war, the golden age, and the greatest generation, and in many respects it was a model crusade. Despite hundreds and thousands of deaths and injuries, public support for the war effort barely wavered. Large majorities backed the use of all necessarily force to compel unconditional surrender, democratize Germany and Japan, and create a new international organization, The United Nations. Americans also supported the targeting of civilians with mass bombing. The Christian Century publication argued that no line could be drawn between discriminate and indiscriminate bombing. Quote, "If we fight at all, we fight all out."
The perfect crusade was followed by the perfect quagmire, Vietnam, but Vietnam is actually a very interesting case. Perceptions of the Vietnam war in the United States were complex and confusing, with many Americans backing an escalation of the war effort, while millions of anti war activists marched in favor of withdrawal. This is no surprise, because unusually, Vietnam invoked both traditions. The first interpretation saw Vietnam as an interstate war between the United States and North Vietnam, supported by communist Russia and China. Similar to the World Wars, this framing of the conflict heightened support of the war effort, and produced a preference for escalation, putting more ground troops, more bombing, and in some cases demands for a march on Hanoi, but over time Americans began to see Vietnam, not as an interstate war, but as a nation building and counter insurgency mission inside South Vietnam.
This second perspective was far more troubling for Americans. Prompting fears of a quagmire, with no clear progress in which the United States would only get bogged down. The rule is that anybody who describes Vietnam as a civil war is always a critic of the war. In other words, American were motivated to fight in Vietnam, and fight to win, against an external state aggressor, but they cared little about the internal politics of the country. The dueling crusade and quagmire interpretations helped to explain why supporters and critics of the war often seemed to be talking past each other. They were looking at two different wars, and they were influenced by two different traditions.
Quagmire was again followed by a crusade. This time directly against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. As is customary, once the fighting began, Americans favored the use of all necessary force to achieve maximum war aims. Again the public was unfazed by enemy civilian deaths, and Americans were uncomfortable with any notion of a restricted or limited campaign to free Kuwait, which left Saddam Hussein still in power. As the fighting progressed, crusading sentiment swelled up, and the number favoring a march from Baghdad to overthrow Saddam rose to well over 70 percent of the public.
Meanwhile, the end of the cold war, an international cooperation in the gulf, led Bush, President Bush Senior, to promise a new world order. A world where the rule of war, not the law of the jungle governs the conduct of nations. In this context, the United States launched it's fifth wave of nation building operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. All of these missions were unpopular with the public, and seen as failures, and they caused bruising political battles with the Republican congress.
The [paxom 00:24:38] of crusade and quagmire also played out as part of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The public was confident and supportive during the interstate war phase as U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban and marched on Baghdad to eliminate Saddam Hussein's government, but then of course, suddenly, we're in the midst of the greatest nation building operation since Vietnam. As U.S. forces began fighting insurgents and overseeing elections, the entire tone of America's thinking about this war has changed, and the public grew profoundly gloomy.
To consider the transitional experience of these wars, just contrast these two front pages from the German news magazine, [Der Spiegel 00:25:17], the first on the left is from 2002, the one on the right is from 2008. In 2002, with the Taliban regime vanquished in Afghanistan, Der Spiegel ran a cover entitled, it's on the left, the Bush Warriors, America's Crusade Against Evil. Picturing U.S. administration officials as popular heroes. So let's see for a moment if you can work out which popular hero each administration official is meant to be.
President Bush was what hero?
Audience Member: Rambo.
Dominic Tierney: Rambo.
As you can see from his enormous machine gun. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld was.
Audience Member: Conan the Barbarian.
Dominic Tierney: Conan the Barbarian, wearing a necklace made from the teeth of his enemies and carrying a sword dripping with blood.
Hovering in the back, National Security Adviser Condoleeza [Rice 00:26:11] was.
Audience Member: Xena.
Dominic Tierney: Xena, Warrior Princess. I see there's a real focus of manners down here.
And Secretary of State, Colin Powell was.
Audience Member: Batman.
Dominic Tierney: Batman.
Rounding out the group was Vice President, Dick Cheney, as.
Audience Member: [inaudible 00:26:33]
Dominic Tierney: Come on, you can get it. Who is Cheney? There have been four movies based around this character.
Audience Member: The Terminator?
Dominic Tierney: The Terminator. Dick Cheney was the Terminator. Particularly unlikely comparison, because the Terminator's advanced targeting system allowed it to distinguish between man and quail. Now, what makes it even more interesting is that after this cover on the left came out, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany visited the offices of Der Spiegel but he wasn't there to criticize the satirical cover, or the article, which was itself a criticism of American unilateralism. Instead, the Ambassador announced that the administration was thrilled by its depiction of superhero crusaders and quote, "The President was flattered to be pictured with such a body," end quote. The Ambassador ordered 33 blown up posters of the image to be sent back to Washington at the personal request of Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney and Rice.
However, in 2008 Der Spiegel you can see this on the right, Der Spiegel ran a follow up story on America's crusading superheroes, but the cover image, entitled The Bush Warriors, End of the Show, told a very different tale. The President appeared as a haggard looking Rambo, leaning on his machine gun and using his ammunition strap as a sling. Cheney, the Terminator was weary with a cracked lens in his glasses. Colin Powell was nowhere to be seen, his Batman suit hanging empty at the back. As for Rumsfeld, this limping Conan the Barbarian was already half off stage. Der Spiegel described a newly pessimistic mood amongst Americans in the face of wearying foreign conflicts. No one in the Bush Administration ordered a poster of this image. So these covers symbolize the transition of our experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. From hope and confidence to weariness and disillusionment, and a steady erosion in public support.
So, how do we explain these traditions? Firstly, why do we crusade for maximum goals in interstate war? For the desire for majestic warrings can't usually be explained simply by strategic logic. Americans favor regime change as a goal even when this would undermine our interests. For example, in the first Gulf War. Certainly America's growing power is part of the explanation. Power is a permissive condition that allows us to crusade, but there are deeper motivating forces at work, and I want to focus on two dynamics: idealism and vengeance.
America is a profoundly idealistic society, shaped by religion and liberalism. Indeed, the United States is the only rich, religious country in the world. The U.S. also has a national ideology or creed based on classic liberal principles, democracy, limited government, self determination, free enterprise, and so on. To be American is not to harp from a particular ethnicity, but to profess these liberal ideas. Liberalism is stronger in the United States than any other country and remarkably few Americans questions its basic assumptions. Once we start fighting against another country, American idealism tends to ratchet up the military objectives by encouraging a missionary impulse to spread our values. Whether it's emancipation in a civil war, saving the world for democracy in World War I, to form freedoms in World War II, or liberating Afghanistan and Iraq. The first bullet in wartime ignites a spark that lights up America's missionary torch. The outbreak of battle simplifies the lines between good and evil, and imbues a sense of faith in the potential of military power. The United States must pursue its purpose driven life and change the world.
The second explanation for the crusading impulse is retribution. The American crusader sows the seeds of liberty with one hand and carries an avenging sword in the other. We also fight zealously to punish those who violate our core values. The trade of wrath is probably rooted in human nature, but it's also reinforced by American culture. Compared to other advanced democracies, Americans are unusually retributive, at least in terms of crime and punishment. Consider that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and it employs the death penalty far more often than other advanced democracies.
Vengeance was a powerful motivator to fight for maximum goals against the Confederacy, the Spanish, and especially the Japanese in World War II as we can see from this war poster. After 9-11, the desire for revenge motivated maximum war aims against the Taliban and Saddam. Bush's rhetoric was imbued with the language of the righteous avenger. Polls showed that Americans were also looking for payback. In summary, America's crusading bible has two books, an old testament of moralistic vengeance and a new testament mission to spread the good word. Both book promote expansive war aims including unconditional surrender and regime change.
So, what about the quagmire tradition. Why do U.S. nation building missions end in tears? Well, of course, there's a very simple explanation. These interventions are depressing, because in reality they always fail, and of course there have been several very real debacles, like Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Iraq. But Washington doesn't always fail. America's first nation building mission, southern reconstruction, broke the chains of slavery and transformed the lives of black citizens. The missions in post World War II Germany, Japan, Italy, Austria and South Korea were all notable successes. The intervention in Somalia in the early nineteen nineties, infamous of course for black hawk down, partly because of the movie of the same name, but this intervention saved by some estimates 100 thousand or more lives. The peace keeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the nineteen nineties stabilized war torn Balkan provinces with, by the way, zero American deaths. If perceptions of failure don't always reflect reality, then it means that nation building ends in tears because we are allergic to it.
But why is this, and in particular, what happens to the crusader zeal to fight for liberty and vengeance? In interstate war, after all, wrath motivates Americans to battle for grand objectives using all necessary force. Wrath is spurred by black and white, good versus evil view of a conflict. Interstate war provides exactly the kind of clear ethical lines that promote retribution. For the American public back home, the urge to retaliate fades dramatically in nation building missions, when we start battling insurgents. The ethical lines become blurred and confusing, taking the wind out of their attributive sails. The enemy is hard to identify and track down. We end up asking a question that we never worry about in interstate war, who are the good guys and the bad guys?
In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, vengeance inspired Americans to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but this revitalizing force dissipated as soon as the dragons were slain, and the war switched to nation building. The demonic Saddam Hussein was a far more attractive target of wrath than the faceless rebel faction. Now, just to be clear, the tempering of retribution in nation building missions is a good thing. If the American people were driven to exact revenge against the Iraqi insurgents or the Iraqi people, this would only worsen the conflict, but the absence of wrath also helps to explain why our will to continue the mission is soon running on empty.
Now, what about the other source of crusading fuel? Our sense of mission and idealism. The perception of interstate war as a quest to spread our liberal and religious ideals encourages Americans to broaden the military objectives and seek regime change, but once we knuckle down and start nation building, overseeing elections, policing ethnic conflicts, our ideals may no longer motivate us. Instead, they can have the opposite of effect, actually sapping our desire to continue.
Why is this? The objectives of nation building are explicitly political, promoting democracy and stability. Here, idealism encourages Americans to set a very high bar for success. Before handing out the laurels of victory, we want the target country to live up to our sacred principles of freedom and good government. Indeed, we're only certain that an intervention succeeded if the country ends up looking as stable and free as the United States.
But impoverished societies like Afghanistan and Somalia racked by war and ethnic division have absolutely no chance of living up to our ideals or looking like America. Interventions in these countries are virtually certain to be seen as a quagmire whatever we do or don't do on the ground. Once Washington owns a country like Afghanistan with all of its problems, American's are struck by the chasm that exists between the ideals they hold dear and what they see in front of them, corruption, electoral fraud, and so on. After all, what conceivable outcome in Somalia, Haiti, or Afghanistan would look impressive to an American idealist?
In other words, an interstate war we fight for our ideals. The righteousness of the cause excuses a multitude of sins, like killing civilians, but in nation building missions, we're running the government. Now, we have to live up to our ideals, and usually, we fall far short. Idealism not only raises the bar for success, it also makes people expect too much, too soon. Americans often assume that U.S. style democracies are universally desired form of government, held back by the obstruction of tyranny. Therefore, elections in the target company will be a panacea that solves all major ails. We've seen some of those types of hopes for example with the elections in Iraq at the moment. When this doesn't happen, people feel disillusioned. Here, American leaders often unwittingly encourage harsh judgements of their own nation building missions with idealistic rhetoric, and promises of rapid success, which only further raises the bar for victory and heightens expectations. Think mission accomplished.
Americans also grow gloomy about nation building because these missions seem to contravene specific U.S. ideals. Left wing critics, for example, often roll against nation building as a volition of a cherished ideal of anti imperialism. Americans are sensitive to the notion that they might be running an empire. Our country, after all, was born in a revolt against the British Empire. But neither can nation building rely on the backing of the political right. Interventions can breach a second ideal cherished by conservatives in particular, limited government. Our liberal ideals promote the belief that people should make their own way in life, free from state meddling. Nation building can look like a conservative nightmare. We use big government to shape foreign societies with wasteful expenditure, massive social engineering, and welfarism. Our fearsome warriors spend their time giving hand outs to foreigners.
Nation building therefore suffers from a [pinsome 00:39:45] movement of opposition from both liberals and conservatives. If the United States is too self interested, it's accused of imperialism. If Washington is too altruistic, it's blamed for turning foreign policy into social work. Indeed, the left wing and right wing critics can end up sounding quite similar. Local people should determine their own fate, free from big empire, or big government.
So, how do the crusade and quagmire traditions connect together? Well, the most striking and immediate observation is just how different they are. For every American who has died while nation building, over 100 Americans have been killed in interstate war. Yet, we spurn relatively peaceful stabilization missions and glory in bloody campaigns against other countries. Indeed, there's an almost schizophrenic contrast between the confidence of the crusade and the gloom of the quagmire. Interstate war is like rolling a boulder down a hill, with the stone gaining momentum, and threatening to lurch out of control. Nation building feels more like pushing a boulder up a hill, a wearying [sicithalian 00:41:03] labor.
But the two traditions also reinforce each other because the zeal for regime change leads the United States into nation building missions. Under the pottery barn principal of you break it, you own it, the United States has little choice but to stabilize the lands it has conquered like the confederacy, the Philippines, Afghanistan, or Iraq. This helps to explain why Americans keep engaging in activity they so deeply dislike. Of course, our support for regime change and our distaste for stability operations is a combination of attitudes uniquely designed to breed frustration. We like braking it, we don't like owning it. I'm happy to talk more about other countries and how their attitudes to nation building and interstate war differ in Q and A. Suffice to say that no other country has the same combination of zeal for majestic gains of interstate war and disdain for nation building.
So, finally, we're going to say a few words about the costs and benefits of the two traditions. Is the crusade tradition wise? Well, in titanic struggles like the Civil War and World War II, the crusade tradition helped Americans keep their eyes on the prize of ultimate victory. But the crusade tradition also has a dark side by cultivating a profound accelerating dynamic in interstate war. It is difficult for President's to fight limited interstate wars involving restricted objectives, and a fine tuned application of fire power. In our era of economic interdependence, daisy cutter bombs, and weaponized anthrax, war has never been more complex, unpredictable, and potentially destructive. The United States must be flexible about using force across the whole spectrum of military scenarios. Sometimes aiming for limited objectives, but other times, when necessary, aiming for far reaching goals. We can't always march on the enemies capital.
What about the quagmire tradition? Is the American aversion to nation building healthy? Well, indeed skepticism has deterred Americans from unwise interference in other countries civil wars, but the quagmire tradition can also be dangerous for U.S. interests. The tendency to view stabilization operations as a debacle can be a self fulfilling prophesy, where disillusionment undermines our commitment to the operation, leading to very real failure. Knee jerk skepticism also gifts our enemies with a playbook for defeating the United States. Kill and destroy, and conjure the image of a quagmire with no end in sight.
The quagmire tradition skews our memory of history so that we sometimes learn the wrong lessons. When the United States was wrongly seen as having failed disastrously in Somalia in the early nineteen nineties, Washington is reluctant to repeat the perceived error in 1994, the following year, by intervening to stop the genocide in Rwanda, where close to a million people were slaughtered. Memories of Somalia, the ghost of Somalia was a critical, perhaps the critical reason why the United States didn't act.
All of this leaves the United States ill equipped to deal with the future of war. In an era where the primary security challenges arise from rogue states, failed states, terrorism, and drug trafficking. These challenges will undoubtedly lead the United States down the path of nation building, but we prefer smashing dictators, not dealing with the messy consequences, using force to destroy, not to build. The crusade and quagmire traditions are especially dangerous in combination. Indeed, the Bush administration was a pure exponent of the crusade and quagmire traditions. Officials were determined to overthrow tyrants, defeat evil, and transform the world, but the administration was also allergic to the very notion of nation building. There's a very American combinations of beliefs and one that had disastrous consequences. The failure to take nation building seriously and plan for post conflict reconstruction Afghanistan and Iraq proved catastrophic as Iraq in particular descended into a vortex of looting and violence.
For Americans, war in its purest form is a grand campaign to topple tyrants and rid the world of evil. This is how we think about war, this is our way of war, this is how we felt.
I'll stop there. I thank you very much.