Equally important is the pattern of overreach, by which the United States has repeatedly turned initial military success into costly defeats or quagmires. The most obvious examples are the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the interventions in Lebanon and Somalia also fit the pattern. In Lebanon, a U.S.-led Multinational Force (MNF) was initially authorized to oversee PLO withdrawal from Beirut, a task accomplished within a couple of weeks. Following the Sabra and Shatila massacres, however, the MNF was sent in again, this time without a clearly defined goal. The mission ended in disaster when the MNF barracks was hit by a truck bomb, killing over two hundred U.S. and French troops. In Somalia, what was initially a successful famine-relief mission (Operation Restore Hope) was converted to a nation-building exercise (Operation Continue Hope). It was abandoned after the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu. Leaving aside the absence of an initial victory, Vietnam fits the pattern as well…
What accounts for this pattern? In part, it reflects the maxim, “To a man who has only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” The U.S. military has the capacity to defeat any conventional military force that might oppose it, with remarkable ease. The idea of such easy victories leads to assumptions that the military must be ideally suited to any task assigned to it, from overseas nation building to domestic disaster relief.
Thus, the very invincibility of the military creates its own problems. With the exception of the deluded Saddam Hussein, no opposing army has been willing to take on the United States in a conventional war since Korea. As a result, proposed military actions almost never satisfy the stringent requirements of the Powell doctrine. As Madeleine Albright famously put it, “What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?” This concept gives U.S. policy makers a strong incentive to find uses for their resources.
Another contributing factor, paradoxically, is that Americans, like most citizens of prosperous and democratic countries, are generally not enthusiastic about war as a policy.