Was the Iraq war the greatest strategic error in recent decades, as some pundits have suggested recently? The simple answer is no. That honor belongs to the failure to take action against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. And if one wants to go back a few decades further, it was the failure to stop Hitler in Europe and to deter war with Japan, failures that dwarf both Iraq and Vietnam in terms of their tragic consequences and the cost in lives and treasure.
Therein lies the conundrum. One kind of error can come from doing too much, from using force too quickly, extravagantly or, as is usually the case, ineptly. The other can come from doing too little, from not using sufficient force quickly enough to remove or deter a threat before it strikes or from hoping that there is an alternative to force until it is too late to act effectively. Nor should it be surprising that the first kind of error often leads to the second. The lesson of 9/11 for many who lived through it was that passivity in the face of threats was dangerous. This thinking surely informed the George W. Bush administration's actions on Iraq, and it informed the support given those actions by 77 members of the Senate, including a majority of Democrats, when they authorized the use of force in October 2002. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. expressed the common view at the time that Saddam Hussein, if left "unfettered," posed an "inevitable threat" and the only question was whether "we address it now or do we wait a year or two or three." Similarly, the lessons learned after U.S. global passivity in the 1930s produced the global activism, sometimes to excess, of the Cold War era.
It is possible to argue, as historians and analysts have, that in both cases the pendulum swung too far, that excessive complacency led to excessive paranoia and activism. This is among the central critiques that George Kennan and others have leveled against the United States over the years, a tendency to swing wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other.
The question now is whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, whether the response to what many perceive as the profligate use of force is going to be to abjure force altogether.
Some might argue that the United States should return to a more traditional approach to the use of force, perhaps presuming that the past decade was abnormal. In fact, however, for more than a century the United States has employed force as a tool of foreign policy rather frequently.
Depending on how one chooses to count, the United States has undertaken roughly 26 armed interventions since 1898 across the Western Hemisphere, Asia, Europe and the greater Middle East: from Cuba and the Philippines in the 1890s to the Persian Gulf, Haiti and the Balkans a century later to Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. If one includes the dispatch of smaller numbers of troops, as well as naval and air operations such as President Ronald Reagan's bombing of Moammar Gadhafi, President Bill Clinton's four-day air campaign against Iraq in 1998 or President Obama's action in Libya, the number is at least six times higher. This does not include covert operations of the kind that President Dwight Eisenhower ordered against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran or threatening nuclear attack against recalcitrant nations, another favorite tool of Eisenhower's. Counting only the larger interventions, with "boots on the ground," there has been one intervention on average every 4 1/2 years since 1898. Overall, the United States has been engaged in combat somewhere in the world in 52 out of the past 116 years, or roughly 45 percent of the time. Since the end of the Cold War, the rate of U.S. interventions has been higher, with an intervention roughly once every three years, and U.S. troops intervening or engaged in combat in 19 out of 25 years, or more than 75 percent of the time, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nor has it mattered whether administrations have been Republican or Democratic, or whether presidents have been alleged "liberal internationalists" such as Clinton or alleged "realists" such as George H.W. Bush, who ordered three military interventions in his four years in office.
Should the United States return to that norm or depart from it? One can easily point to the cases in which military force has failed to achieve its objectives and where it probably would have been better not used. But in other cases, the use of force has been effective, sometimes more so than it seemed at the time. When the Korean War ended, few Americans considered it a success, but the marvelous economic and political vitality of South Korea today and its role as a key ally of the United States stem from that "Forgotten War." In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining that world order since the end of World War II. It is also an essential part of effective diplomacy. As George Shultz observed while secretary of state, ''Power and diplomacy always go together. . . . The hard reality is that diplomacy not backed by strength is ineffectual."
The question today is finding the right balance between when to use force and when not to. We can safely assume the answer lies somewhere between always and never. Perhaps we can move away from the current faux-Manichaean struggle between straw men and caricatures and return to a reasoned discussion of when force is the right tool.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.