Provocative analysis of why Americans love some wars and hate others.
Nearly everyone considers the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires, writes Tierney (Political Science/Swarthmore Coll.; FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America, 2007, etc.), yet both began with widespread support. This is predictable, he argues. The Founding Fathers proclaimed America the hope of the world, and since then we take for granted that all sensible people yearn for our freedom. This sense of mission carries over to wars which become righteous crusades such as the Civil War and two world wars. Crusades work against organized governments, but not where central authority is feeble, and we often take up “nation building”—fighting to establish a stable state, often against local opposition. With no Satan to vanquish (whether Hitler or Hussein), we lose patience, an attitude made worse by leaders—from McKinley to Bush II—who invariably declare that these newly liberated people are eager to love their neighbors and hold elections. Tierney points to the American efforts in Kosovo as a success. In fact, many interventions labeled fiascos (Lebanon, Somalia) saved thousands of lives. Our wildly mishandled quagmire in Iraq is winding down with modest success, and Afghanistan is more prosperous and free than in 2001 despite the growing feeling that honest government is a forlorn hope. Absence of anarchy and mass murder—not free elections—is a reasonable goal for nations with no tradition of good government; even this modest achievement requires more tolerance for frustration than most Americans possess.
Despite the obligatory optimistic coda, most readers of this lucid and enlightening yet discouraging insight into America’s impatience with nation building will not feel encouraged.