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38 years of war: America resorts to use of force first, not last

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
38 years of war: America resorts to use of force first, not last
U.S. soldiers provide security in Afghanistan. File Photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann/U.S. Army

Which of the following countries has been at "war" or at least engaged in continuous combat operations the longest: the Peoples Republic of China; the Soviet Union/Russia; or the United States? The answer is America.

Consider the record.

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The United States fought the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Vietnam began with the first American death in 1959 and lasted until the 1974 withdrawal. In the 1980s, the United States used force in Beirut, Granada and Panama. In the 1990s, America engaged in Desert Shield and Desert Storm from 1990 to 1991 and continued airstrikes against Iraq, Somalia, and the 78-day Kosovo bombing campaign. Since 2001, the United States has been fighting the war on terror, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and maintains an ongoing military presence in Syria. Of the 74 years since the end of World War II, the United States has been at one form of war or another for at least 38 years.

Why has the United States resorted to force so frequently when Red China and the Soviet Union, despite domestic repressions, were far more careful in external military operations? China fought in Korea; had two brief spats with India; and a disastrous intervention into Vietnam that cost Beijing a full army division. The Soviet Union ruthlessly put down revolts in Eastern Europe in 1956 and 1968. It lost an eight-year war in Afghanistan and has been engaged in the partial occupation of Ukraine and Crimea for five years. All that pales in comparison with the United States.

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Why does the United States persistently pursue what John Quincy Adams called "monsters abroad" and strongly counseled against such forays? Does the U.S. psyche contain a Wild West gene in which shooting first and asking why later dominates? Is the United States void of alternatives to using its military as a first rather than last resort? Or do presidents become infatuated with America's military might and hence decide to use it as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asked Gen. Colin Powell?

These questions are even more relevant today as President Donald Trump deliberates over how to deal with Iran. After abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that, if fully implemented, would have prevented Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon (to those who dispute this, please read the agreement), the president now argues that Iran can never be allowed to possess an atom bomb. Barring Iranian self-restraint or some other cosmic event, only military force can achieve that outcome.

That did not happen with North Korea despite the threat of U.S. presidents to keep nuclear weapons out of Pyongyang's hands. With much of Iran's nuclear capacity in deep underground facilities, conventional airstrikes with bombs and missiles are unlikely to accomplish that mission. That means only nuclear weapons or ground forces physically accessing these cites can guarantee destruction. And what happens if Iran has hidden sites that are not found?

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My book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, offers a number of answers to these questions. High on the list are the profound lack of knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which force was to be used by inexperienced presidents; ideology; group think; the mistaken assumption force could succeed; and often political expediency. The current administration is guilty on all counts. While the president may be non-ideological, certainly many on his national security team advocate regime change in Iran, not having learned the disaster such views produced in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Vietnam years ago).

A majority of Americans would, at first glance, disbelieve that this country has been at war for so long and so often. Some will argue that the war on terror is not really a war and because American casualties have been low, this is somehow different. That we have spent many trillions of dollars waging this fight is overwhelming proof to the contrary. That our military has accepted these conditions for nearly two decades is a remarkable commentary on its professionalism, endurance and dedication.

How long can this preference for using force last? Will future administrations be condemned to follow the same path, regardless of which party wins the presidency? The president campaigned on ending these seemingly permanent conflicts. Yet, with U.S. involvement in the Horn of Africa and Syria, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the possibility of using force in Iran, that promise has not been kept.

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Adams was right. Why go needlessly in search of slaying monsters abroad? But presidents do not seem to heed his advice.

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