The United States has the most potent military in terms of firepower and operational capacity in history. Our military overthrew Saddam Hussein and crushed the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Our forces can direct a rocket from Nevada through a window in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and nimbly set up nearly 20 Ebola treatment centers in Liberia.
Yet this same military, as writer James Fallows recently pointed out in the Atlantic, has not won its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya or anywhere else in the past 20 years – if winning means creating a stable, capable and ideally democratic governing structure that is able and willing to police its own territory.
After the United States poured billions of dollars into the Iraqi army, it fell apart in the face of a few thousand initially lightly armed Islamic State fighters.
Conditions in Afghanistan are in some ways far better than they were before Sept. 11: Life expectancy has jumped by more than five years; many more children, girls as well as boys, attend school. But the Taliban remains an active threat. Foreigners have fled. Opium production is up. Corruption is rampant.
Libya is descending into chaos.
We have not lost because the military and its leaders failed to adapt or because military resources were misdirected. We have lost because we – our civilian leaders, our country – have accepted objectives that are not attainable. Our goal has been to put countries on the road to modernity, to move them toward well-governed, prosperous, democratic states that respect human rights, have an active civil society, treat women and men as equals, have a free press, extend the rule of law to all members of society and encourage market-oriented economic activity.
Our military knows how to fight effectively against an enemy as unconventional as the Taliban, al-Qaida or Islamic State, but also how to train their Iraqi and Afghan counterparts to pull off complicated military maneuvers.
But what our military cannot do – what no one can do – is to transform domestic political and economic institutions in these countries. We, our leaders and our people, are guilty of assuming that the United States is not only a “city on a hill” but also the natural model for how human beings should organize political authority. We think that modern liberal democracy is what many countries should aspire to and that, absent obstacles, it will spring into existence. This is a chimera.
Our objective should be “good enough” governance, which means ensuring that a state is capable of keeping order within its own boundaries – at least enough order to contain transnational terrorists. Maintaining order in some countries might require an American military whose primary mission would be to degrade transnational terrorist entities and perhaps intervene to maintain a balance of power among local strongmen.
Ideally, “good enough” governance would include providing some public services such as health care and primary education that would not threaten the local elite’s ability to extract resources and stay in power. Some degree of economic growth might be possible provided we recognize that these rulers always require their cut of the profits.
Unless we accept that our Wilsonian aspirations are unreachable and counterproductive, the United States will not be able to align its assets – military and civilian – with policies that have a chance of keeping us safer.
Stephen D. Krasner is a professor of political science at Stanford University.