Many fear that President Donald Trump may stumble into conflict — most recently with North Korea — but we face a wider ignorance about the use of force. Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, have acted foolishly.
Nations have often felt compelled to fight, but seldom does anyone really win. The Soviet Union played a crucial role in the Allied victory during World War II at the cost of 20 million lives, and decades later the cost of the Cold War bankrupted the regime. America and Britain expelled Germany from Western Europe only to see the Soviets swallow Eastern Europe. And, Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War produced a continuing occupation of people it does not want to rule and who do not want to be ruled by it. Vietnam Communists expelled French and U.S. capitalists, only to succumb to capitalism.
Military force brings unintended consequences. When Americans invaded Canada in the War of 1812, they drove Canadians further away. Some historians believe it would be part of the United States today if its troops had stayed home.
World War I did not make the world safer for democracy; it fueled the rise of the Nazis, who are admired by some domestic terrorists today. The U.S. invasion of Iraq destabilized the region and created a vacuum the Islamic State was happy to fill.
Secret wars seldom remain secret, or end well. Politicians and intelligence services are often enamored of covert action. If Seal Team Six can take out Osama bin Laden, the reasoning goes, couldn’t a few thousand “operators” work wonders?
The CIA overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 and put the Shah in power, but his murderous regime drove the populace to embrace extremist mullahs. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954, this time at the behest of the United Fruit Co., unleashing wholesale slaughter of peasants and a wave of refugees fleeing here. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba cemented Fidel Castro’s hold on power for decades. The U.S. secret invasion of Cambodia and Laos neither remained secret nor helped us win in Vietnam — and put the genocidal Pol Pot in power in Cambodia. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” our covert support for mujahideen in Afghanistan, drove out the Red Army and hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse, but also ushered in the Taliban, al-Qaida and Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russian nationalism.
What might we learn from all this? Those who think America can attack North Korea, Venezuela or Iran, openly or covertly, without unleashing chaos are out of their minds.
Thomas W. Goodhue is a retired United Methodist clergyman and a former International Fellow at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.