Next year marks the centennial of the conflict once known as the Great War. Germany lost that war. Whether France and Britain can be said to have won in any meaningful sense is another matter. Besides planting the seeds for an even more horrific bloodletting just two decades later, the fighting of 1914-1918 served chiefly to provide expansion-minded British politicians with a pretext for carving up the Ottoman Empire. It proved a fateful move.
What London wanted from this new Middle East that it nonchalantly cut and pasted was profit and submission; what it got was resentment and resistance, yielding a host of intractable problems that in due time it bequeathed to Washington. In effect, victory in 1918 expanded Britain’s imperial domain only to accelerate its demise, with the United States naively assuming the mantle of imperial responsibility (euphemistically termed “leadership”). Thank you, Perfidious Albion.
Many another storied triumph has contained its own poison pill. More recent examples include the Six Day War, which saddled Israel with a large, restive minority that it can neither pacify nor assimilate; the ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, giving rise to the Taliban; and Operation Desert Storm, after which the garrisoning of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia helped light the long fuse that would eventually detonate on Sept. 11, 2001.
Think you’ve won? Wait until all the returns are in.
With the passage of time, near-term military results matter less than long-term political consequences. Fifty years ago, when the Korean War ended in an apparent stalemate, most Americans considered Harry Truman’s “police action” a horrendous mistake. Viewed today, that brutal conflict may qualify as the most successful U.S. military action of recent decades. Consider what came next: a half-century of stability in Northeast Asia that allowed the Republic of Korea to emerge as a prosperous democracy and a loyal ally. Not too shabby.
Of course, that upbeat assessment pertains only if we define the U.S. objective as containing communism. In the autumn of 1950, the mission of U.S. forces pressing north of the 38th Parallel toward the Yalu River was rollback. Judged by this criterion, Truman’s war even today rates as a failure. The effort to liberate North Korea yielded little apart from a needless conflict with China — which prompted a chastened Truman to reinstitute containment as the principal U.S. war aim.
A challenge facing historians of the Iraq war, which began 10 years ago this month, will be to gauge what senior members of George W. Bush’s inner circle were actually trying to accomplish. The justifications offered for the invasion were all over the place, including supposed weapons of mass destruction, claims that Saddam Hussein had collaborated with al-Qaeda and visions of democracy throughout the Arab world. Eventually, only this last — Bush’s Freedom Agenda — remained. Yet, as the war dragged on, expectations of transforming the Middle East gave way to more modest definitions of success. When it came to advancing the cause of liberty, the Bush administration set out to build a cathedral. In the end, the Obama administration declared itself content with a shaky two-car garage.