In early 2009, when the Obama administration assumed responsibility for the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the new president’s supporters were "surprised and dismayed" when U.S. policy toward either war did not change dramatically. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose explains that, in fact, "wars are difficult to close out even when they are started well, and mistakes at the beginning complicate the job exponentially, no matter who is in charge later on."
In How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, Rose asserts that leaders are often focused on defeating the enemy and find it difficult to switch gears and construct a stable political environment in the aftermath. For instance, in the early stages of the Afghanistan war, a memo was sent to then secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stating that the United States government "should not allow concerns about stability to paralyze U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban leadership.... Nation-building is not our key strategic goal."
Rose attributes this to an "inherently flawed" clear-division-of-labor approach to war, in which policymakers deal with political matters and military leaders with military matters. In fact, "political issues can permeate every aspect of war," he says.
Such confusion stems from an incomplete understanding of the nature of war: "Wars actually have two equally important aspects. One is negative, or coercive; this is the part about fighting, about beating up the bad guys. The other is positive, and is all about politics. And this is the part that, as in Iraq, is usually overlooked or misunderstood," writes Rose.
While this might seem like common sense, he writes, "in war, as in life more generally, common sense is actually quite uncommon." Surveying the endgames of six U.S. wars from World War I to Iraq, Rose finds:
- "Woodrow Wilson fought a war to make the world safe for democracy but never asked himself what democracy actually meant and whether, say, a constitutional monarchy in Germany would fit the bill." A generation later the United States found itself once again "dragged into a battle against an aggressive German regime and its partners";
- Franklin Roosevelt "resolved not to repeat Wilson’s mistakes but never considered what would happen to his own elaborate post-World War II arrangements should the United States’ wartime marriage of convenience with Joseph Stalin break up after the shooting stopped." In the aftermath, the administration realized that even a "complete transformation of Germany would not be sufficient to guarantee peace in Europe," as a new threat was forming from the Soviet Union;
- The Truman administration casually established "voluntary prisoner repatriation" as a key American war aim in Korea—thinking that no prisoners should be repatriated against their will—"but never thought how many prisoners might grab the option and whether it would block an armistice, which it did for almost a year and a half." (Forty-five percent of the United Nations’ casualties during the war occurred after negotiations began: "more than 124,000 of them, including 9,000 Americans, came during that period when prisoner repatriation was the sole contested issue");
- "The Kennedy and Johnson administrations dug themselves deeper and deeper into Vietnam without any plans for how to get out," making it impossible for the Nixon and Ford administrations to escape unscathed;
- "George H. W. Bush assumed Saddam Hussein would fall as a result of defeat in the Gulf War, but did little planning for how to achieve that outcome or what would happen if it didn’t occur";
- "When the [George W. Bush] administration toppled Saddam, 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. Liberation turned into occupation; local ambivalence into insurgency and then civil war."
Rose argues that the crucial test for Obama and his successors "will be not simply whether they can muddle through the struggles that were bequeathed, but whether they can avoid making major mistakes themselves in the wars that will follow down the road."
He concludes, "If new generations of wartime policymakers fail to think clearly about what they are doing and stumble badly once again, they will have nobody to blame but themselves...For them, exercising prudence when deciding how to spend the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens is not an option; it’s a moral obligation."
Advance praise for How Wars End:
"This is a brilliant book on an important subject. Americans are always disappointed with the outcomes of wars and the troubled peaces that follow. Gideon Rose explains that this is because of the way we think—or don’t think—about war and peace. The book is a masterpiece of historical analysis with lessons for our strategy in Afghanistan and beyond."
—Fareed Zakaria, contributing editor, Time; columnist, The Washington Post; and weekly host, CNN
"Gideon Rose’s wise, trenchant review of the last century of world conflict is one of the startlingly rare books that gets the connection between war and politics, means and ends."
—Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist, Slate
"Fred Ikle’s 1971 book Every War Must End has influenced analysts and policymakers for decades. Gideon Rose’s How Wars End is likely to be just as influential for generations to come. You may think you know something about the wars he writes about, but you are guaranteed to learn something new here. Even when dealing with such polarizing figures as Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and George W. Bush, Rose is always accurate and fair, neither sycophantic nor unduly scathing—a feat few other writers pull off. This is a book that should be read by everyone involved in military planning—and everyone affected by the decisions those planners make."
—Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies, CFR
"In his trenchant study of how difficult it was to end wars in the past century, Gideon Rose draws fresh and persuasive lessons for how to define and achieve U.S. interests, both in Afghanistan and in the face of future challenges. A timely and important work."
—Strobe Talbott, president, The Brookings Institution
"If you think there’s nothing more to be learned from the major wars of the last hundred years, this book proves you dead wrong. By focusing on the intricate, often overlooked endgames of these conflicts, Gideon Rose makes a compelling case that the unintended consequences of wars have overwhelmed even the best-intentioned plans of the American leaders who have presided over them. Every top official contemplating military action should read this book—and take its lessons to heart."
—Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy, EastWest Institute
To order, visit: www.cfr.org/how_wars_end
Gideon Rose was recently named editor of Foreign Affairs, where he served as managing editor for the past decade. From 1995 to 2000, he was Olin Senior Fellow and deputy director of National Security Studies at CFR, serving as chairman of CFR’s roundtable on terrorism and director of numerous study groups. In 1994-95, he was on the staff of the National Security Council, where he served as associate director for Near East and South Asian Affairs. In addition, he has been a staff member at the journals The National Interest and The Public Interest. After studying classics at Yale, he received a PhD in government from Harvard and has taught American foreign policy at Princeton and Columbia. His previous publications, edited with James F. Hoge Jr., include Understanding the War on Terror, America and the World: Debating the New Shape of International Politics, and How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War.
Foreign Affairs, published by the CFR since 1922, is the leading publication on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. The total paid circulation of Foreign Affairs has reached an all-time high of 161,000 per issue, a 43 percent rise since 2001. The premier business-to-business research firm Erdos & Morgan also ranks the magazine #1 in influence by U.S. opinion leaders in a national study of publications. Inevitably, articles published in Foreign Affairs shape the political dialogue for months and years to come.
The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Since 1922, CFR has also published Foreign Affairs, the leading journal on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.