The U.S. waged two effective short-term wars following 9/11. Unfortunately, the nation then grafted them onto far more ambitious enterprises that not only drove their costs, in American blood and treasure, through the roof, but also sowed the seeds for failure.
That's the key takeaway to keep in mind as President Obama weighs what to do about the rampage now being conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in both of those nations.
Over the Labor Day weekend, U.S. airpower, combined with Iraqi help on the ground, broke a two-month ISIS siege of the village of Amerli in northern Iraq. The militants had been tightening a noose around the farming town, cutting off water, food and power, and residents had begun dying. Finally, beginning late Saturday, a handful of U.S. air strikes let Iraqi forces and militias break the siege.
While President Obama said the strikes would be "limited in their scope and duration," their success offers a template, in miniature, for a broader U.S.-led campaign against the Islamist militant group.
It would mark a departure from recent U.S.-led wars. "No one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation or nation-building," Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote in a weekend op-ed column in the New York Times, urging stepped-up U.S. military action against ISIS. "This should be more like Afghanistan in 2001, where limited numbers of advisers helped local forces, with airstrikes and military aid, to rout an extremist army."
In Afghanistan, the U.S. waged a monthlong campaign that drove the Taliban from Kabul. It relied on U.S. airpower and special operators on the ground, working with local anti-Taliban forces. Then, the U.S. launched a 13-year effort, still under way, to build an Afghan government immune to the Taliban.
Many Taliban fled to Pakistan, where they continue to plot to retake power in Afghanistan once U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. There's an echo of that Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan in ISIS's presence in Syria. Any beefed-up campaign against ISIS militants is going to have to attack their targets in both nations.
In Iraq, the U.S. military pushed Saddam Hussein from Baghdad less than three weeks after invading the country. But the U.S. soon became mired in an eight-year nation-building effort that failed to build a nation. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S., despite its best intentions, helped install leaders who have done little to lead their countries to a better place.
And that exposes the futility of the so-called Pottery Barn rule. Retired Army general and then Secretary of State Colin Powell summed it up by saying the U.S. had responsibility for the nations it invaded: "If you break it, you own it."
But war isn't always about creating something better. Sometimes it's simply about ridding the world of terrorists whose zealotry compels them to kill innocents.
For a warrior-diplomat renowned for his earlier guidelines on going to war — the so-called Powell doctrine required a clear and obtainable objective before the first bombs fell — the Pottery Barn rule proved daunting.
Actually, Pottery Barn doesn't have such a rule. If a customer stumbles into a vase and sends it crashing to the floor, the company writes it off as a cost of doing business. It's past time for the U.S. government to scrap its misinterpretation of the so-called rule.
War isn't a positive experience for anyone, and all involved are ill served by pretending otherwise.
If the U.S. deems ISIS to be a threat to U.S. national security, the U.S. military, backed by presidential order and a congressional declaration, should wage unrelenting attacks against it. Instead of embracing Powell's view, the nation would be better served thinking of war as 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes viewed human life without government: "nasty, brutish and short."