Here's the problem. How do you deal with an untrustworthy dictatorship threatening U.S. national interests?
The 20th-century solution was security through total victory: destroy the enemy's military and replace the dictator with democracy. When the defeat of Germany in World War I failed to prevent World War II, American leadership learned that lasting peace required both military victory and political transformation. As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's aide Breckinridge Long put it in 1942, "We are fighting this war because we did not have an unconditional surrender at the end of the last one." The failure of 1919 -- embodied in the looming White House portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, an architect of the Treaty of Versailles -- shadowed FDR. This time, Roosevelt declared, allied forces "must not allow the seeds of the evils we shall have crushed to germinate and reproduce themselves in the future."
It worked. Total victory over Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945 transformed them into peaceful, prosperous, democratic allies of the United States, in what was the greatest foreign-policy accomplishment in U.S. history. Winning war went hand in hand with eliminating threats.
Fast-forward to 2001. As in 1941, the United States faced an untrustworthy, threatening dictatorship, this time a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The only solution seemed to be total military victory, an overthrow of the Taliban, and the installation of a democratic government. Two years later, the same approach was employed against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Now, to the present. What happened to the formula? Defeat of military forces, check. Attempted installation of democratic institutions, check. Achievement of peace, prosperity, and democratic maturity -- hold on. Eight years later, Afghanistan has neither stability nor democracy, much less prosperity. The Barack Obama administration is in the throes of a major debate about how to right the sinking ship of its Afghanistan strategy, with no clearly attractive options. Six years later, Iraqi violence is finally down to a dull roar, allowing U.S. forces to begin withdrawal. But Iraq still faces major hurdles, including designing institutions for provincial elections and allocating oil resources. Iraq in 2009 does not look much like Germany or Japan in 1951, six years after military defeat. Clearly, the United States took a wrong turn somewhere.
What lessons should Washington policymakers draw from the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences? An obvious lesson is that winning the war is the easy part, and the hard part comes after. The United States has become very, very good at dominating conventional army-against-army battles. But it's not so good at successfully installing democracy and defeating an insurgency when it erupts.
Less obvious, perhaps, is that failing to install democracy or avoid insurgency actually undermines the original goal: eliminating threats to U.S. national security. Military resources have been sucked into the two long conflicts. Counterinsurgency operations in Iraq have especially made the United States appear as a brutal occupier, fueling anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups worldwide. And, the festering sore of Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan, threatening to destabilize a nuclear-armed state ruling a restive and increasingly radical Muslim population.
Where does that leave the United States? If war does not eliminate threats, then perhaps those threats need to be addressed without war.
Take, for example, two more states ruled by threatening, anti-American, nuclear-aspirant dictators: North Korea and Iran. Indisputably, the World War II option of invasion followed by imposed democratization is off the table. Iran is much larger and more difficult to conquer than Iraq or Afghanistan, and North Korea can defend itself with nuclear weapons it already possesses.
Some might suggest limited airstrikes against Iranian or North Korean nuclear facilities, echoing the 1981 Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. However, the success rate of such attacks, including the 1981 strike, is not encouraging. Future airstrikes are likely to be even less successful than past efforts, as new nuclear states now go to great lengths to disperse, conceal, and harden their nuclear facilities. The recent disclosure of Iran's Qom uranium enrichment facility probably does not provide a complete account of Iranian nuclear locations. Additional secret facilities likely exist, as Nima Gerami and James Acton recently argued on ForeignPolicy.com.