This article, based on Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, originally appeared on TomDispatch.
“War is the great auditor of institutions,” the historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies in full to America’s armed forces.
Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Bush conceived of a bold, offensive strategy, vowing to “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” The military offered the principal means for undertaking this offensive, and US forces soon found themselves engaged on several fronts.
Two of those fronts–Afghanistan and Iraq–commanded priority attention. In each case, the assigned task was to deliver a knockout blow, leading to a quick, decisive, economical, politically meaningful victory. In each case, despite impressive displays of valor, fortitude, durability and technological sophistication, America’s military came up short. The problem lay not with the level of exertion but with the results achieved.
In Afghanistan, US forces failed to eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda. Although they toppled the Taliban regime that had ruled most of that country, they failed to eliminate the Taliban movement, which soon began to claw its way back. Intended as a brief campaign, the Afghan war became a protracted one. Nearly seven years after it began, there is no end in sight. If anything, America’s adversaries are gaining strength. The outcome remains much in doubt.
In Iraq, events followed a similar pattern, with the appearance of easy success belied by subsequent developments. The US invasion began on March 19, 2003. Six weeks later, against the backdrop of a White House-produced banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” This claim proved illusory.
Writing shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the influential neoconservatives David Frum and Richard Perle declared Operation Iraqi Freedom “a vivid and compelling demonstration of America’s ability to win swift and total victory.” General Tommy Franks, commanding the force that invaded Iraq, modestly characterized the results of his handiwork as “unequaled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war.” In retrospect, such judgments–and they were legion–can only be considered risible. A war thought to have ended on April 9, 2003, in Baghdad’s al-Firdos Square was only just beginning. Fighting dragged on for years, exacting a cruel toll. Iraq became a reprise of Vietnam, although in some respects, at least, on a blessedly smaller scale.