Postwar Delusions: Why America Keeps Making Mistakes Abroad

Derek Leebaert

PAYING MINIMAL attention to the ironies of history is a key reason why America has failed at four wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and, as is often forgotten, Korea, with its doomed counter-invasion to “liberate” the north in 1950–1951. Each ended up unrecognizably and disastrously far from the mission declared at the start. It’s an unnerving record hardly offset by the ultimate, protracted defeat of the Soviet empire, or by 1999’s two-and-a-half-month Balkan aerial campaign, or by 1991’s celebrated one-hundred-hour destruction of a wretched army of conscripts strung out across two hundred miles of Kuwaiti desert. 

Vagueness about the past reaches deep into the country’s leadership, as well as into intellectual discussion. It is an underlying cause of failure because we neither understand our opponents’ cultures nor the shortness of our attention span, among other inherent vulnerabilities. Voters are blaming the twenty-first century’s forever wars on the foreign policy establishment, just as Washington’s best and brightest were blamed for Vietnam half a century ago. The culpability of today’s prominent mainstream historians, however, has gone unnoticed. 

Scholars, think-tankers, columnists and other practitioners who’ve shaped prevailing assumptions have been unable to get the facts straight on pivotal events. It’s time to examine the willful obtuseness that characterizes the study of postwar foreign relations and the myths that arise.

THE WORLD beyond Europe and the Americas in 1945 remained largely a colonial one. After the war, the United States had minimal influence in Africa, and little sway, except for Palestine, in a greater Middle East dominated by Britain. 

The eminent historian Fredrik Logevall disagrees. America, he writes, was “the only real superpower,” and was “uniquely able to affect the course of events in the developing world.” Yet America couldn’t affect a fracturing China. Even in Southeast Asia, which he has examined closely, America couldn’t do much: the future of Europe was at stake and Washington wasn’t going to block the return of Britain and France. 

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