How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle

Jan 31, 2011

Pax Americana is a good thing, declares Gideon Rose. The problem is that even when the U.S. wins militarily, it often botches dealing with war's aftermath because it fails to define its political objectives.

This event was hosted by Richard A. Edlin, Esq., Greenberg Traurig LLP.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us.

A special thank-you to our newest trustee, Rich Edlin, who is sponsoring this program today. Thank you for your ongoing support.

We are delighted to have Gideon Rose here to discuss his recent work, How Wars End. In writing this book, Gideon raises an issue of vital concern, not only for the military establishment and policymakers, but for all those who care about America and our place in the world.

The question he asks is, why, when wars end, do we find ourselves at the mercy of events rather than in control of them? He states that time and time again, from World War I through the present, Washington has never really figured out how to disentangle itself from the fog of war. Our leaders, he says, concentrate more on defeating the enemy than on focusing on the political aspects of war and creating a stable postwar environment.

The past decade has provided painful confirmation of the truism that it is easier to start wars than to end them. The classic conclusion of war, with the enemy surrendering in the wake of the unequivocal defeat of its forces, has given way to messier outcomes, dependent on managing complex political processes.

Iraq is a perfect example, where the goal of our military was met, but the United States was left presiding over a country rapidly spinning out of control, with officials having no plans or resources for what to do next, as liberation turned into occupation and local ambivalence into insurgency, until it was brought under control.

In How Wars End, our speaker takes us through each major American war of the 20th century to show how confused political leaders often are about exactly what they are trying to achieve in the coming peace.

Influenced by the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist, who defined war as "a continuation of politics by other means," and a belief that every act of war has to be judged by two distinct sets of criteria, political and military, Gideon used this philosophy as a guiding principle in conducting extensive interviews with those who participated in the decision making of recent wars.

In doing so, he vividly re-creates the choices that presidents and their advisers confronted during the final stages of each major conflict. His descriptions make it very easy to imagine being in the room when decisions whose outcomes affected millions of lives and shaped the modern world were made.

While the causes of war have received far more scholarly attention than their termination, this book is intended to adjust our thinking so that we will consider our future involvements and exits in a more decisive way. Accordingly, as we think about exit strategy from Afghanistan, How Wars End is a book that Gideon hopes will help us to learn from our mistakes.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Gideon Rose.

Thank you so much for joining us.


GIDEON ROSE: Thank you very much. It really is a great pleasure and privilege to be here. I have been to so many events at the Carnegie Council that I'm keenly aware both of how great an honor it is to speak here and what large shoes I have to fill. I hope to make it as lively as possible.

I have prepared a special version of this to annoy people, because in these kinds of sessions, the worst sin is to be boring and worthy. I'll try to go beyond that, even though I hope to be worthy but not, at least, be boring.

The starting point for my book is Clausewitz's twin understanding of war, both as an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will, and as an act of policy, which is the continuation of politics with other means.

Why does he define war twice? How do these definitions relate to each other?

The answer is that war has two sides, a military side and a political side. It is the use of force. It involves violent means. If you were going about your various strategic and political means without force and violence, it wouldn't be war; it would be politics. It would be the normal stuff of international relations. But if you weren't trying to engage in some kind of political endeavor, the use of violence wouldn't be war either; it would just be banditry, crime, or a spasm of irrational action. What makes war war is the combination of violent means and political ends.

That was the fundamental insight of Clausewitz. The fundamental Clausewitzian challenge is how to harness force to policy. For a Clausewitzian, the chief goal of strategy is to use violence or force to achieve some rational political objective. It's almost irrelevant for a Clausewitzian what the objective is, as long as you know what you're trying to do and you try to use your forces to achieve that.

If that is the case, then the challenge of strategy is to set your political objective, to devise a strategy to achieve it, and to essentially make sure that that is done. It's not, in effect, rocket science. It may be very difficult to do, but, in theory, it's pretty simple to imagine. At one point, Clausewitz says everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult, for a whole variety of reasons. That's basically correct.

Part of the book is this theoretical framework on how we should think about war. What's interesting is that if you look in practice at how American military and civilian policymakers at the highest levels approach the subject, they bollix it up right and left, practically every single time. They don't tend to do what Clausewitz says in the way that he says it should be done.

This doesn't mean that they fight the wrong wars, fight wars unnecessarily, or fight badly. All of those things may or may not be true, depending on one's politics and many other things. What it means is that they don't think through the process and the endeavor as carefully and rigorously as they should. They don't tend to define for themselves what specific political end they are trying to achieve in an intelligent and wise manner, and they don't try to devise their strategy in order to accomplish that end.

What they usually try to do is avoid the mess inherent in the Clausewitzian framework, in which everything is linked to everything else, and instead create a clear division of labor. To a practical person looking at this notion, you have politics and you have war; you have generals and you have civilian authorities. Surely it can't just be everything thrown into a blender. Who is going to do what? How do you find a clear skein of thread through this whole muddle?

The logical thing to do would be to say "Let's create a division of responsibilities. Yes, there are political and there are military things, so let's divide it up. Let's have the civilian leaders take care of politics. Let's have the military leaders take care of military matters. And let's have a kind of nice, straightforward sequence in which you have the civilians decide on war and you have them set the political objective."

You have them turn the matters over to the military so that they, then, accomplish the goals. Then you have the generals turn things back to the civilians and diplomats at the end to handle the postwar issues.

That seems like an appropriate, logical way to go about this. Everyone knows who's doing what. Everyone knows when they are doing it and who is responsible. That should work out well.

It may seem logical on the surface. But, in practice, this is one of the worst ways to do things, and it never works properly. Why? Because the heart of the Clausewitzian challenge is that it's not one thing in sequence followed by another thing. It's that the two things are inherently connected all throughout the operation. There is no such thing in military affairs as a purely military act for a Clausewitzian. By the same token, everything is political, but politicians don't necessarily know about military matters. So there is no substitute, for a Clausewitzian, for combining these things throughout.

At one point he says that to end a war successfully is the highest act of statesmanship. It is when the commander-in-chief simultaneously turns into a statesman. He says this because the grand lines of war continue from war through the settlement into the postwar era.

From that perspective, what Americans have generally done is they have focused on one thing first, which is the military aspect—beating up the enemy, the negative aspect of war—and left the positive construction of some postwar settlement, the resolution of the political issues involved, to some later period after the fact.

What that has ultimately meant is that when you approached those political questions at the end of the day, you had lost your leverage and you were behind events, and things had already started to take their course. Instead of fighting the war so as to achieve your desired political outcome, by treating them sequentially, when you were left dealing with the politics of it, you had no real plan for what to do next.

I really hope people do read the book, not just because it's good, but because it really says what I'm saying here. These points sound a little bit either silly, commonplace, or outlandish, but they are all detailed very carefully in the book. If something I'm saying doesn't sound right, it probably has a better logic to it in the book.

Particularly this is true of the historical cases, because the accusations that I'm making about the policymakers are not light ones. They are essentially a gross strategic irresponsibility on the part of our leaders, time and again, with very little excuse, except that they botched the job. That's a pretty serious charge to make and I do not make it lightly.

I have served in government, and I reserve my highest accolades and admiration for Teddy Roosevelt's men and women in the arena. These were people who actually got in there and tried to do things.

I am not a mere theorist. I am not a mere academic. I'm not somebody who sits on the sidelines kibitzing. I have served under very impressive people, who got up every day and were public servants trying to make the world and American foreign policy a better place. When they do their job right or when they even give it a good-faith effort and try to do the right thing and an intelligent thing, I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.

What annoys me is precisely that professional rectitude and admiration for serious policymakers when their work is not done properly. Too often the failure to approach war seriously in its proper context leads to bad policymaking that could and should have been done better.

What I do in the chapters of the book is take the reader through every war: World War I, World War II (in Europe and Asia), the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and a little bit on Afghanistan, too. I show how these questions were faced by policymakers and, often, why they ended up doing something that seemed suboptimal.

The short answer is that they tend to do things suboptimally because they don't think things through carefully enough in advance, they rely on improvisation later in the game, and they focus exclusively and prematurely on the negative aspects as opposed to the positive aspects. We all get so caught up in the enemy that we don't think about what's going to happen after the fighting stops.

Just-war theory says that you should fight war to achieve a better peace afterwards. We don't tend to think about our peace—or, rather, if we do think about the peace afterwards, we think about it in a negative way: We have to get rid of Hitler, the Kaiser, Saddam, the Taliban. That's all a necessary and important part of things. If you don't get rid of the bad guys who are causing the trouble in the first place, you're not going to be able to construct anything particularly good afterwards. But it's not, by itself, a sufficient answer to the question of what comes next.

The classic example of this is Iraq, in which we essentially keep seeing Saddam's actions as the problem, and never really think about the larger question of Iraqi politics, Gulf stability, and so forth.

When the Bush Administration, in 2002 and 2003, defines its goal in Iraq as regime change, and when it goes in and does a very good job of quickly knocking out Saddam's forces, compelling Saddam to flee, and captures Baghdad—everyone celebrates and thinks that the end has come. The fact is that it properly should have been understood from the beginning as only the first step. Okay, you got rid of him. There's the "now what?" question.

My argument is that politicians invariably end up like Robert Redford at the end of the movie The Candidate, where they get into office and then say, "Now what?" If that's the only time you have started to think about that question, you are going to have real problems.

I could take you through all the cases. There is a lot of really interesting stuff in the book on those cases. I'll just say one thing.

Everyone criticizes George W. Bush, with good reason. The Iraq War in 2003 is about as bad a case of this as exists in the record. It's almost paradigmatic. I wrote this as a dissertation first and then put it aside for many years. It's interesting that the paradigmatic case turned out to be done after the first draft of the book had been written. I was glad to be proved right, although I feel a little guilty. Maybe if I had written the book 15 years ago, I would at least be in a better position to say, "I told you so"—not that it would have changed anything..

But it's easy to bash Bush fils. It's harder to bash Bush pére because, in certain circles you have the great, wise realists, the sober people who didn't do the bad Iraq thing and so forth.

Let's talk a little bit about Bush 41. It turns out they made exactly the same kinds of mistakes, although a different subset, as did the successor Bush.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, within literally the first 36 hours, the Bush Administration had decided basically what it would do. The U.S. was to oppose the invasion, to set itself on the reversal of the invasion without paying any price to Saddam, to do this via a coalition, and to put in place a series of graduated measures—diplomatic, economic, and, ultimately, either air and then ground military sanctions—to push Saddam out of Kuwait.

In that sense, everything that happens after the invasion, from August 3, 1990, through the end of the Gulf War, is like the gun in Chekhov's dictum that appears in the first act and then is fired in the last act. Everything follows the script.

But when Bush announces the first goals of the American enterprise in his first speech to the country, he says, "We're not just going to reverse the invasion of Kuwait. We're going to provide for the security and stability of the Persian Gulf."

At this point this was sort of boilerplate language that had been in the American strategic discourse since the Carter doctrine more than a decade earlier. No one really knew what that meant or cared what it meant. It was sort of, "We say that in every speech on the region, so we'll say it again now."

But it's interesting. They knew that they wanted to get Saddam out of Kuwait, but they didn't stop to think about what happens afterward. It was false to equate getting Saddam out of Kuwait with achieving the security and stability of the Gulf. He wasn't in Kuwait in the beginning, and the Gulf obviously wasn't secure and stable, because he came in. The question then becomes, once he is out, then what?

What the first Bush Administration never did was define what it needed beyond getting Saddam out of Kuwait. So you have this classic scene in which the end of the war—and I really can't do justice to it in the time I have here. Take a look at the book for a recounting of it.

After Schwarzkopf's famous press conference about "the mother of all battles" and "we've won the war," there is a scene in the White House where Bush gathers with his advisers in the Oval Office, and Colin Powell gives the classified version of the briefing that Schwarzkopf just gave. They all sit around. He says, "Mr. President, I expect by tomorrow I'll be able to come to you and tell you we've achieved all of our objectives. Then we should think about the next steps."

Bush says, "So you're saying it's over. We've won."

He says, "Well, yes."

Bush says, "If it's over—you are going to do that tomorrow—how about tonight?"

He says, "Well, that's interesting."

And Sununu pops up and says, "If we ended it at midnight tonight, that would be exactly 100 hours of the ground war. A hundred hours—gee, that sounds nice."

Everybody says, "Huh."

"Okay, anybody got a problem with ending it tonight?"

Powell goes, "That's interesting. Let me get Norm [Schwarzkopf] in here on this."

He pulls out the phone. "Norm, the president wants to ask you, do you have any problem if we end it at midnight tonight, 8:00 a.m. tomorrow in the region?"

Schwarzkopf says, "I don't know. Let me think about that. Maybe. Let me check with my commanders. Okay, sure, that's fine."

I say that part. That's not in the record. There's no record that he ever did check with his commanders. So that was functionally what he did.

He says, "Sure, that's fine."

"Okay, great."

"Everyone's fine with this. Good. Let's break. You start briefing the Congress. You start briefing the allies, and I'll go on tonight and announce that."

They come out of this meeting in the Oval Office and their deputies are all there. They say, "Where are you going now?"

"I have to go brief Congress on the end of the war."

"What do you mean?"

"We just decided to end the war at midnight tonight."

"End the war at midnight tonight?"

"Well, that's what we're doing."

I talked to several of the deputies and they all thought this was silly and premature. They all thought that there was more stuff to be achieved. They didn't think it was necessarily going to end in disaster, but they didn't think that we had worked out the proper ideas for this.

They thought, "I don't like this, but the bosses have decided it, so we'll go and do it."

You actually have records of several of the deputies saying, "This is a bad idea."

We end the war, and all sorts of problems with the victory pop out. It turns out that we don't have any plan for Iraq. We had been assuming that the humiliating defeat Saddam suffered would lead to an insurrection within the army in Iraq, that that would take care of things, and you would get some kind of Sunni dictator in Iraq, an authoritarian who would maintain some less nasty, less reckless version of Saddam's regime that would maintain stability in the region and everything would be essentially status quo ante, but better.

This doesn't happen. Instead, you get the wrong people rising up. You get Saddam putting them down, as we watch, because we don't want to get involved. Then you end up backing into a containment regime that you never had planned for or wanted. None of this stuff was rocket science. None of it couldn't have been predicted. In fact, some of it was predicted. But these guys had never wanted to consider the long-term aspects of what happens there.

You could almost see the book as life as told by the deputies. In every well-run professional organization that I have been involved with, there is usually a very wise senior professional standing there shaking his or her head in disgust at the bosses and how they are doing some pretty silly thing that's going to end badly. They think if they would only do the proper staff work before this, and pay attention to professional best practices, it would save everybody a lot of trouble. You could have somewhat lower expectations, plan it more carefully, achieve something better and solid. But they end up being Cassandras.

That actually happens a lot. In some ways, I was trained by those types. This is the world as seen by the deputies. In this case, it literally is the world as seen by the deputies, because a lot of them told me exactly this, and I quote one of them at length in the book. There is a quote from Calvin Waller—it wasn't me; it was an interview that somebody else did with him—Schwarzkopf's deputy, who, listening to the press conference that we all heard, with "the mother of all battles," actually said, "No, that's not right. No, no, we're not there yet. I don't think I would go that far." Yet he goes along and essentially doesn't get listened to.

Here you have a classic situation, with George Bush, Sr., with Dick Cheney in his wise, reasonable form, prior to the 1990s, with Colin Powell, everybody's favorite sage, and with Brent Scowcroft, everybody's even more favorite sage, and these guys botch things because they don't think it through and plan carefully.

It's not just George W. Bush that screws it up. I often say, what's going to happen with Iraq if Jeb wins? If you stay out of Baghdad, you get into trouble. If you go to Baghdad, you get into trouble. The Bushes have tried everything. What's the next Bush going to try in Iraq, if things go bad there, if he comes in? It's an interesting question.

At the end of the day, the strategic advice is pretty simple. It really is more common-sense than you imagine. It's follow best practices, know what you're trying to achieve and why, figure out what you want the situation on the ground to look like before you go in, and monitor the execution carefully to make sure that happens.

You also need backup plans for possible obvious contingencies in place, at least rudimentary ones, so that if things go better or much worse than you expect, or if your assumptions are wrong, you have at least the start of a Plan B.

People say it can't really be that simple. It's never that simple, but that would go a long way towards putting you in a good position to do things much better. It turns out that in politics, as in real life more generally—or in war, as in real life more generally—common sense is very uncommon.

You could sum up the advice by saying that the Iraq War, in which postwar planning was relegated to phase 4, stability and support operations—it's no surprise that that was the phase where they had the worst postwar planning in American history. Nobody in the world has ever gotten to item four on a to-do list, so it's no surprise that phase 4 was ignored.

In fact, the simplest constructive change you could make would be to flip the ordering sequence, so that, instead of thinking about it as a progress from 1 through 4, with 4 being the settlement, think of it as a countdown. Think of it as, "Here's the moon watch. Here's the situation that we want to see at the end of the day." Then you have 4, 3, 2, 1, because everything prior to the achievement of that situation that you want to see at the end of the day has meaning only insofar as it accomplishes that.

To say, for example, as someone like John Bolton does, that Iraq was going great up until the postwar stuff, which was done badly, is like the famous guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and is asked 80 floors later how things are going, and he says, "It's going great."

You only have the test of how it's done when you achieve the last stage. You can't judge the early phases of the war until you have it play out and you have them lead into the successful accomplishment of the underlying goals.

Reversing the order, so that everything is focused on how you are going to get to phase 1, is the simplest way you could focus your mind properly.

With that, and before I turn it over to questions, I want to say something even more. We all know how to bash politicians. We all know how to bash especially the Bush Administration, even both Bush Administrations. Let me say something a little more controversial in these quarters, with the great and good assembled here, something that will maybe annoy people a little more, or at least provoke them.

As I was doing these cases and I was focused on the individual politics of each war and the individual choices that decision makers were making, it struck me that there was—actually, this came about when I was looking at the end of the Gulf War. I was trying to say to myself, What would you have done? What was the great mistake that the Bush I team made? Was it that they should have gone to Baghdad? If not, how would they have avoided the other problems? If they didn't go to Baghdad, then what you are complaining about?

Any good criticism has to imply a better alternative. Otherwise, it's not a good and valid criticism. What they really should have done was to decide for themselves, in advance, what they thought was achievable and desirable, and then design their war to that end.

The short answer was, they never really thought about Iraq. They knew what they didn't want. They knew that they didn't want to run Iraq after the war. They knew they didn't want to stay in the Persian Gulf. They knew they wanted to deal Saddam a defeat. So all the goals were negative. We'll deal Saddam a defeat. We'll avoid another Vietnam, by keeping everything limited and quick. We'll avoid colonialism and getting stuck in a quagmire, and we'll avoid Korea-style endless, open-ended containment.

That's what they thought they were going to achieve. But they never defined what they were going to achieve. They never defined what the positive outcome was.

What does security and stability in the Persian Gulf actually mean? If they had thought it through they would have realized that the sad, unfortunate fact was that it is a nasty region, with an imbalance of power locally, two nasty regimes at the top, a bunch of weak regimes that are American clients at the bottom, and a huge amount of oil resources.

This region only had stability and security when there was some kind of provision of balance, and since the local conditions of balance weren't there, they would have to be provided. The British were no longer providing it, since they had pulled back from east of Suez, and the Americans were no longer providing them via proxies, like the shah. Since the Americans were not able to balance them, like with Saddam, there was no alternative to us basically stabilizing the region ourselves.

There were only two ways to do this. There was the Korean model, which is to settle for half a loaf and the status quo ante, but stay there forever to make sure the thing doesn't blow up again, or there was the somewhat more expansive World War II-type model of "go there and remake the bad guys so that it doesn't work."

Those really were the only two options. They weren't particularly attractive ones, but hoping for a third that was nicer wasn't actually a good strategy. If they had asked themselves, "Which of these two do you really want?" and then segued logically from the war plan to that outcome, it would have been better.

I know people who think that the containment regime of the 1990s was about as least-bad an option as you could get in the Persian Gulf. Everyone bashes containment, but no one really knew what we should do instead.

If that's what they honestly felt —if you were a tough-minded realist and said, "A Korean Peninsula type of situation, with Kuwait as the new Korea and Iraq as North Korea—it's not optimal, it's not fun, but it's the least bad scenario we can think of," then you should have actually segued from the war to the postwar era. There were more people who died, more chaos and turmoil, and more outrage in the month after our victory than there was during the war itself, because we didn't know what to do about Iraq itself.

If you knew you were going to be content to leave Saddam in power afterwards, then you should have essentially gotten to the outcome you got to in a much more efficient, direct, and sustainable way. We have had containment of North Korea for the last 60 years. We still need to do it. But because we thought through what it would involve, how to achieve buy-in, and did it carefully, the containment regime that we achieved in Korea, has lasted pretty durably and acceptably for several decades.

If you thought that was the best you could achieve in the Gulf, that's what you should have shot for.

If, on the other hand, you thought, "No, we can't possibly live with Saddam there," for any reason—strategic or moral—then you would have had some kind of plan, not just to continue the war until he was removed, but some kind of plan for what to do in Iraq afterward. What's your postwar plan for Iraq?

The Bush Administration II knew they didn't want to do the First Gulf War, and they didn't want to do Clintonian nation building, but again they had no real plan. They invented a light footprint, turn-it-over-to-the-local-Iraqis plan, not because there was any good reason to believe that would work. They did it because it allowed them to think they could escape both Bush I's terrible realist compromises, leaving the bad guy in power, and the Clintonian nation-building quagmire approach that they didn't want to do in the Balkans.

This idea that you can define your option by the negatives—what you don't want—is bad.

Thinking about this in the Persian Gulf made me think that the problems basically go away, or at least are contained, when America is involved. All across my cases there was a pattern playing out. You had wars about the balance of power in Europe and then you had a sort of stabilization. You had three major global wars over the fate of Europe in the 20th century: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The United States enters late in the first one, decides it, and comes home. With the second one, we enter earlier, we decide it, and we stay there. And because we stay there, and for other reasons as well, the third doesn't actually occur.

You have this pattern put in place in which you learn the lessons in Europe: Going away doesn't work. So you stay there. We're still in Germany now.

You apply this lesson in Japan. You say, "Why leave? We'll just take over the Japanese empire. We're going to build up a new Japan." We stayed there.

You apply this to Asia, and you end up with a balance of power in Asia as well, with Korea. You stay in Korea.

Vietnam is a distraction. We focus on that, go in, but it's a mistake. We pull out. But it doesn't affect the larger strategic pattern in Asia, which is that the United States presence has largely solved, or at least stabilized, the Asian balance of power.

Then you have a new generation of wars in the Middle East—Iraq I, Iraq II, Afghanistan—that are essentially about the control and stabilization of the Middle East.

It occurred to me that what you were seeing was nothing less than a progressive campaign of global pacification in which the United States dealt with turmoil by essentially maintaining order itself, first over our own continent, then our hemisphere, then Europe, then Asia, increasingly, and in the last generation, struggling over the Middle East.

We all know of a town in Iraq called Fallujah with its nest of vipers and bad guys. Fallujah we dealt with once. We go in, we clear it out, and we come back. And what happens? It gets taken over by bad guys again.

So you go into Fallujah a second time and clear Fallujah out, and this time you stay. The experience in Fallujah helps lead to the re-embracement of the counterinsurgency doctrine and the clear-hold-and-build strategy. The latter strategy is that you clear out the bad guys, you hold the territory, and you build the local government into a healthier political regime that will help secure itself.

Germany is nothing but Fallujah writ large. What was World War I but a clearing operation of Germany? Then we go home. And what happens? A generation later, we find ourselves forced to come and clear Germany a second time.

We say to ourselves, "You know what? This is really getting annoying. We don't want to have to do it a third time." So instead of leaving, we stay and we hold Germany. We are holding Germany today.

But holding something directly is costly, risky, and unpleasant. It's much easier to have some nice local allies to help you do it. So we build a nice new Germany and a nice new Western Europe. We have the European Union and our nice local Western allies in Europe as the built-up products who help us maintain and hold the gains and territory that we cleared twice before.

You know what? It has worked pretty well. We haven't had to clear that area again.

Japan we clear once. We say, "We learned this lesson before in Germany. We're going to hold this, too." So we hold it and we build Japan.

We do it in Korea. We try to take all of the peninsula. We say, "No. That's a bridge too far," and the Chinese come in, so we retreat to the halfway point. We take a half back. We clear the south, we hold the south, and then eventually we help build a nice Korea.

By the way, the Korean example shows that you don't have to do the building all at once. You can leave the nasty authoritarian local proxy—our classic SOB, but our SOB—in place and then let modernization and general development do the building for you, to a certain extent. You get the same outcome as in Germany and Japan, just separated by a couple of generations.

The question we have to face in the Gulf, in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East more generally is, if what I'm saying is true, then American involvement around the world has been nothing less than a kind of benign hegemonic presence which has essentially, however unpleasant, costly, and risky, it has been better than the alternatives. The alternatives have been chaos, disorder, tyranny, poverty, and a general sort of mess. The places we have gone and stayed have been the ones that have tended to do better.

All you have to do is look at Korea today and you see exactly what I'm talking about. We decided in the north that it was too much, not worth it. "You guys don't want to be part of the American empire? Fine, so be it." Almost sixty years later, it's still a backwards, tyrannical, impoverished, and brutal place.

That is a nice, good comparative case study. There wasn't all that much difference between North and South Korea in 1953. There's a hell of a lot of difference between North and South Korea today. There was some difference between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, but it wasn't nearly as dramatic in 1945 as it was in 1989.

The implication here is that, instead of thinking of these wars, seriatim, as individual sort of one-offs against a certain bad guy, we should link the wars to a larger pattern of American foreign policy in which our presence is actually quite a benign factor.

The Obama Administration, by the way, has added "transfer" to the mantra. The Obama Administration's policy in Afghanistan, if you listen to it, is clear, hold, build, and transfer, as if no one ever wanted, before them, to transfer.

The fact is that you can define American foreign policy in the 20th century as clearing, holding, and building around the world, and then waiting for transfers that never come.

The real question for us, practically speaking now, is not just the individual specifics of individual wars, but the bigger and broader question—and this is directly relevant to Afghanistan and Iraq—is, where, given the incredible costs, difficulty, and service involved in these benign, even by my own account, imperial interventions, is it so important to provide the beneficence of American order that we are prepared to do it?

Which parts of the world can and should we leave to function on their own devices, knowing that if we do not spread the blessings of American power—and I'm being deliberately provocative in saying this, because I want somebody to come back and give me an answer and I'll fight with you about it in the questions and answers—which areas of the world should we leave to themselves and have suffer the consequences of being outside the charmed circle?

If you look at the areas that have been outside the charmed circle of American power in the 20th century, you would all end up being like Peter Sellers in The Mouse that Roared, saying, "Hey, can we attack you so that you can come and invade us and then we can be part of the American empire, too?" It would be better to be South Korea than North Korea, better to be West Germany than East Germany, and, I would daresay, even better to be Kuwait than Iraq.

The interesting question is, do we think that Afghanistan deserves to be part of that, or should we leave it in the category of Vietnam and say, "You know what? Our bad. We shouldn't have been in there in the first place. We should get out now, cut our losses, and leave you guys to fend for yourselves"? Do we really want to do that? It's an interesting question.

With that, I'll throw it open for questions and answers.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: John Hirsch. First of all, thank you very much. Provocative, rather patronizing, rather Americocentric, all of the above. Even if your premise is accurate, which I'm not sure it is, what does one do with places of the world that would not want this American presence?

In other words, one could argue that enough Germans and Japanese bought into this that they accepted this presence. But presumably in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Pakistan, and so on, there's no interest in this whatsoever. At least I can't see it.

Does this only apply to these examples because we somehow, in a particular historical moment, sold it to a certain number of people—Adenauer or Jean Monnet or somebody?

It seems to me very unlikely that we're going to sell this to the king of Saudi Arabia or Zardari and up in Kabul and so on.

Could you elaborate on this?

GIDEON ROSE: It's a very good question.

We have sold it to the king of Saudi Arabia. He's a client in good standing. Whether the people of Saudi Arabia would agree with him is a different question.

What you're saying is ultimately a question of the price and difficulty of establishing such a hegemonic sphere of U.S. influence. Where it's unpopular, it's more costly, difficult, and morally problematic to erect and sustain. I certainly agree that that is the case. What I would say at that point is, all the more reason only to do this where necessary. In places like Vietnam, the mistake was not in prosecuting the war badly or not having a good strategy, but entering a war that you didn't need to enter, and mistakenly thinking you needed to be in a place.

The logic of my argument is that when you really need to do this, there's no answer but to do it yourself. It's Americocentric because that's when things have gotten solved. As for what the locals think, if they are in a strategically important region, to a certain extent you lose control and get put in a period of regency when you lose responsibility for your own security.

I have no problems whatsoever in sounding patronizing and paternalistic. We took European strategic affairs out of the hands of Europeans, when they were shown to be unable to handle it to their own and our satisfaction. When we left European geopolitics to the Europeans, things didn't go well.

The same thing happened with East Asian geopolitics. You know what? The German and the Japanese army have killed a lot fewer people in the half-century since their countries were made part of the American quasi-empire than they did in the previous half-century. That constitutes a justification for everybody else, whether or not it is accepted by the Germans and the Japanese, for the logic and benignity of what we actually ended up doing there.

The question of some other areas of the world, would be how strategically important do you think Afghanistan and Pakistan are? If you are in an area of the world that is not demonstrably and obviously strategically very significant, then you should probably not be playing this game, for a whole variety of reasons. It's difficult, costly, expensive, and probably going to be unwanted. If that's the way everyone felt, if you can't do it quickly and easily and with acceptance of the locals, maybe you want to think about not doing it at all.

What that means in a truly strategically important area is an interesting question. The only area that is absolutely strategically critical now that I can see resisting that is the Persian Gulf. We have enough willing clients and proxies in the Gulf to be able to maintain the necessary bit of control that we need to stabilize that region.

The gravamen of your question would be, get out of the places that don't want to do this, because getting out will probably hurt them more than it will hurt us.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the presentation.

Picking up on the previous question, we went into Afghanistan, we had the success relatively quickly, and then we withdrew. The same as the Russians, we got bogged down, but we actually had what appeared to be victory. Now we're back. There was sort of a holding pattern—exactly what we shouldn't have done, without building up the local infrastructure. Now we're back.

For us, it's a war on terror, supposedly. Isn't it a different premise from the previous wars?

There is no state really involved. They are harboring al-Qaeda. That's the same with Pakistan. Isn't that our concern, and isn't that a different parameter?

I don't think it is because at root it comes down to the same thing. We are in a place because we feel that leaving that place to its own devices harms our interests.

By the way, I'm cynical enough not to think that humanitarian reasons have been the primary reason behind our major conflicts. It has been a secondary reason for some major conflicts, and it has been a primary reason for some minor conflicts. But we are not so exceptional or humane that we have ever made humanitarian reasons the primary rationale for our major conflicts.

Essentially, we're in the places that I'm talking about because we feel that we have to be and we need to be, and the costs of being in are less than the costs of being out. It is about costs and risks.

We're in Afghanistan because when we weren't in Afghanistan, people flew planes into our buildings and killed people. We're there now, still, because we feel that if we left, there would be a risk of that happening again.

The people who say we should get out of Afghanistan—what they are really saying—and, by the way, I'm totally open to this—what they're really saying is, "I am prepared to accept the risks of not being in Afghanistan rather than put up with the costs of being in Afghanistan."

That is precisely the debate. The fact that it's indirect versus direct—if the Afghan government can't control its territory and we have to control it for them to take care of the bad guys that are operating from the badlands there—it's the same thing as if the Afghan government was doing it. It means that the only way to deal with the problem is to establish control over that territory. It's ultimately about political order. Who has political order over a territory, and what are they using that to do?

A bad guy who has political control and is using it to do bad things is in some ways an easier challenge. This may be one of the things you are talking about. Not having control and having bad things flow from the chaos of state listlessness as opposed to a bad state, that is a different problem in how you deal with it, but it still puts the issue of can we live with the problem, or do we have to find some way of dealing with it? That's the interesting question.

It's a question of risk acceptance and risk aversion. The war on terror is a giant insurance problem. There are floods. There are tornadoes. There are all sorts of risks that occur that we pay insurance to take care of. We each have to say to ourselves, even beyond what the government mandates, how much insurance should I take out to deal with a low-probability/high-consequence bad thing that could happen to me? That's exactly what terrorism is on the national security level. It is a low-probability/high-consequence bad thing that could happen.

All the various policies that we erect as part of the war on terror, including the bad things we have our intelligence services do, including the costs in our own lives that we impose on ourselves through security measures, the military interventions and other things we engage in—all those things are, in effect, payments we make to, in our own minds, hold down the risks of that bad thing happening to us. If you're prepared to accept the risks instead or if you believe that, in fact, all that stuff is actually making the risks higher rather than lower, then we should stop doing those things and go about our lives, and not be burdened by all this stuff. That's certainly legitimate.

QUESTION: Howard Lentner. I agree with you on taking Clausewitz as a starting point and the relationship between force and politics. But in your interpretation, in the provocative part of your talk, you attribute too much to politics and you underestimate what can be attributed to violence and force.

For example, the United States did not decide to leave North Korea alone. It was stopped militarily. It was unwilling to go to war against China, and probably the Soviet Union, in order to gain part of that. That was not a political decision. It was done by force. So was the end of World War II, in the way we ended up in Europe. We did it by force. We were stopped from extending our influence into Eastern Europe by Soviet power. Also Vietnam. We did not just choose to withdraw from Vietnam. We got defeated in Vietnam.

But you underestimate the role that other people play as well. In the case of Western Europe and Japan, for example, you had a culture, an economic system, and a political system that provided a base for building the prosperity that would put them in the position where they could then choose to ally with us.

I want to argue that there is a different interpretation from yours.

GIDEON ROSE: Let me say two quick things about that. The first is, it's fascinating that when you look at any individual choice, policymakers almost invariably see themselves as deeply constrained. When you look at it through a broad historical perspective, it almost seems that history had to go a particular way because that's the way it went, and it's very easy to see all the things that led up to that.

But if you probe that a little more carefully, and if we ask ourselves what happens tomorrow and what happens the next day, it's actually a lot less constrained than people think. There is a lot of choice involved. We were defeated in Vietnam. We could have stayed there. We chose, from 1968 on, not to bear the costs of the war. The North Vietnamese could never have pushed us out. We chose not to continue bearing the costs of an ongoing war, because we felt it wasn't worth it. It's a perfectly legitimate choice.

In North Korea, we had a nuclear bomb. We had more troops. We ultimately decided that the costs of staying in the north were too great to merit staying.

Even though we often tell ourselves stories about constraints and the military costs—I don't mean to say that it's a choice that's an unconstrained choice. It's just that it's a choice you make at the end of the day about resources, and what's vital versus what's not vital. You can often surprise yourself by doing more when you really think it's necessary.

With regard to the second thing, it's interesting. It may be true, what you're saying about Germany and Japan. It's harder to see that in prospect than it is in retrospect. If you had said in 1945, "Germany is about now to embark on successful democratization. The Germans are pacifists and democratic at heart, and will be fine. The Japanese will turn themselves on a dime into a pacific country of democrats after that quasi-fascist imperial Japanese military regime,"—people would have looked at you like you were crazy. It may be true, what you're saying, but it's harder to know in advance.

Weber thought the Catholics couldn't economically develop. If you had said to people in the 1950s that South Korea would be a member of the OECD in a few decades, they would have looked at you and laughed and thought, "What are you smoking? Can I have some of that, please?"

Things have happened that we didn't expect to happen and things haven't happened that we did expect to happen. While we need to factor the preconditions and so forth that you are talking about into calculations about what is feasible and not, it's much harder to make deterministic predictions than one might expect, looking at the cases in retrospect.

JOANNE MYERS: Unfortunately, our time has come to an end. Thank you.

GIDEON ROSE: I'll be around if people want to talk a little bit.

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