As Iraq unravels, a painful truth about U.S. politics and foreign policy is becoming more evident: The United States is very good in all-or-nothing situations, but all-or-nothing situations don’t often arise.
The “war on terror” is the paradigm example of this syndrome. In Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, nothing is simple. The goals are complex, the trade-offs excruciating.
On this subject, Anthony Cordesman’s papers on Iraq and Syria are particularly worth studying. They’re full of warnings about the new security challenge. These now look prescient — and they highlight the peculiar difficulties that confront the indispensable nation. His most important lessons are especially hard for the U.S., of all countries, to follow.
Cordesman’s advice on conducting “non-wars against non-terrorists” boils down to this: Lower your expectations and be patient. In many countries, that way of thinking is of necessity the default. In the U.S., it isn’t. Americans want victory, and they want it now. And if they can’t win, they ask, why get involved at all?
In the foreseeable future, there’ll be no victory against jihadism. That’s partly because it doesn’t pose enough of a threat to justify total war against it. Yet the idea that jihadism poses no threat to the U.S. and can simply be ignored is risible.
The danger can’t be crushed; it can only be managed. This means confronting it intelligently and patiently — with allies wherever possible, and always measuring the (uncertain) benefits of action against the (uncertain) costs.
“Mission accomplished” illustrates what Cordesman calls the end-state fallacy — the idea that deep-seated conflicts can be brought neatly to an end. So does President Barack Obama’s remark on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”