A merica’s recent wars in South Asia and the Middle East have inflicted extraordinary physical damage and wreaked seemingly endless havoc. Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq during 2001–2014 totaled $1.6 trillion.1 Once long-term veterans’ care, disability payments, and other economic effects are included, estimates rise to $4–$6 trillion.2 Related reports count over one million Americans wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to nearly seven thousand killed.3 A conservative tally of local civilian casualties in these countries reaches the hundreds of thousands. Mass destruction has not brought political order to Kabul, Baghdad, or (if one adds the 2011 Libya war) Tripoli. Dictatorship has been followed by civil war and interstate conflict among regional powers.
These conflagrations present a historic opportunity for correcting US policy, but mainstream critiques have been stunningly myopic.
At the peak of government, foreign policy learning remains more self-exculpatory than self-reflective. The cutting-edge diagnosis is that proper “counterinsurgency” requires a more serious political commitment than what Washington made in 2001–2016. Take, for example, the argument of President Donald Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser Nadia Schadlow.4 In her 2017 book, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory, Schadlow faults civilian and military leaders for ignoring history and not learning that they must bridge the gap between conquest and governance.5 Her remedy: US leaders must utilize “ground forces” not only to wage war but also to “set a foundation for the development of longer-term strategic outcomes.” This approach, when “done well,” can produce stable democratic allies such as Germany and Japan; when “done poorly,” it leads to fiascoes like Afghanistan and Iraq.6 While she condemns historical amnesia, though, Schadlow barely mentions Vietnam or, more recently, how US leaders pondered America’s failure there as they hatched the abortive 2010 troops surge in Afghanistan.7 With wildly tendentious recall, she then blames the gap between firepower and authority on a lack of technical erudition — a conclusion not unlike the Vietnam War autopsies she fails to cite.8