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After a decade-plus of war, the lessons for the United States are clear: fight fewer, more traditional wars and fight them more decisively. Above all, avoid getting entangled in the politics of chaotic countries.
With Congress debating intervention in Syria, Americans may soon realize the tragic truth about the decision at hand. To the extent that any policy is strategically sensible, it is unlikely to be politically palatable; to the extent that a policy can be accepted as politically legitimate, it is unlikely to be of much strategic merit.
For half a century, deterrence was the backbone of U.S. national security strategy. But now, Washington doesn't seem to know how and when to use it properly. The United States has needlessly applied deterrence to Russia, failed to apply it when it should have against Iraq and Iran, and been dangerously confused about whether to apply it to China. U.S. policymakers need to relearn the basics of deterrence in order to apply it successfully in the appropriate circumstances.
Betts is by no means a lone voice arguing for American restraint, but he is certainly among the most articulate.
In this 1994 article, Richard Betts argues that when the United States intervenes in other countries' domestic wars, it must take sides among groups to ensure someone is in charge at the end of the day. Interventions that aim to be evenhanded prevent the very peace they seek to create.
After the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer each presented a bold vision of what the driving forces of world politics would be. The world in 2010 hardly seems on a more promising track -- a reminder that simple visions, however powerful, do not hold up as reliable predictors of particular developments.
Two new books on intelligence reform -- Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes and Amy Zegart's Spying Blind -- distort the historical record. A third, by Richard Betts, rightly observes that no matter how good the spies, failures are inevitable.
The United States now spends almost as much on defense in real dollars as it ever has before -- even though it has no plausible rationale for using most of its impressive military forces. Why? Because without political incentives for restraint, policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy. Washington's new mantra should be "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough."
The failure to prevent the September 11, 2001, attacks or find Iraqi WMD have put intelligence at the center of this year's presidential campaign. The key to better performance, however, lies not in major reforms but in the character and sense of responsible officials.
President Bush's case for war on Iraq overlooks a very real danger: if pushed to the wall, Saddam Hussein may resort to using weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Such a strike may not be likely, or may not succeed, but attacking Saddam is the best way to guarantee that it will happen. And Washington has done far too little to prepare for it.
Soon after September 11, pundits began calling for an overhaul of the U.S. intelligence system. But although some minor reforms might help, U.S. intelligence has been performing well. The grim fact is that even the best system sometimes lets a few mistakes slip through, and many proposed reforms would only make things worse.
In Waging Modern War, General Wesley Clark describes how NATO bested Serbia -- just barely -- in the organization's first-ever shooting war. With confused priorities, a reluctant military, and overweening lawyers, the alliance was scarcely up to the task.
The risk of a catastrophic exchange of nuclear missiles has receded. Yet the chances of some use of weapons of mass destruction have risen. Chemical weapons are a lesser threat, but more likely. A vial of anthrax dispersed over Washington could kill as many as three million. Traditional deterrence will not stop a disgruntled group with no identifiable address from striking out at America. The United States must pull back from excessive foreign involvements and begin a program of civil defense to reduce casualties in the event the unthinkable happens.
The United Nations and the United States continue to intervene in wars without forthrightly taking sides. Impartiality may sound sensible enough, but it has hamstrung would-be peacekeepers and worsened conflicts in Bosnia, Somalia, and, to some degree, Haiti. War is about who rules. If military intervention occurs, outsiders should ensure someone is in charge at the end of the day. Interventions that avoid the root issue and aim to be evenhanded become compromises that kill. They prevent the very peace they seek to create.
Soviet reformism has presented an unexpected challenge to NATO, to adapt itself reasonably to changes without compromising its military position. In particular, the logic of INF should not be allowed to encourage the removal of short-range tactical nuclear weapons.