Does the United States start wars badly but end them well?

Guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, Jonathan Rauch waxes eloquent about the "coolest (U.S.) war ever": the war of 1812." I’m not going to debate the "coolness" of that particular war (or any war, for that matter), though I’ve always thought trying to conquer Canada was an act of folly by the young American ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Jonathan Rauch waxes eloquent about the "coolest (U.S.) war ever": the war of 1812." I'm not going to debate the "coolness" of that particular war (or any war, for that matter), though I've always thought trying to conquer Canada was an act of folly by the young American republic, even though it got lucky and managed to eke out a draw.

But this one line of the post caught my eye:

The other lesson of 1812 is that Americans usually start wars pretty badly but end them pretty well."

Guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, Jonathan Rauch waxes eloquent about the "coolest (U.S.) war ever": the war of 1812." I’m not going to debate the "coolness" of that particular war (or any war, for that matter), though I’ve always thought trying to conquer Canada was an act of folly by the young American republic, even though it got lucky and managed to eke out a draw.

But this one line of the post caught my eye:

The other lesson of 1812 is that Americans usually start wars pretty badly but end them pretty well."

Hmmm. Of course, this claim depends a bit on the criteria one uses for judging success, but here’s a quick run-down of American wars and how well we started and ended them.

Revolutionary War: Started badly (i.e., the British won most of the early rounds) but ended well (we got a country!)

War of 1812:  Started badly (i.e., the British occupied Washington and set fire to the White House) but ended ok.

Mexican-American War:  Started well and ended well (if you like land grabs).

Spanish-American War:  Started well but ended badly (the United States ends up occupying the Philippines and fighting a bloody counterinsurgency war, featuring widespread atrocities and causing the deaths of several hundred thousand Filipinos. Sound familiar?)

World War I: Started well for the United States (we got in late and on the winning side) but ended badly (i.e., the Paris Peace Conference produced one of the Worst Peace Settlements Ever)

World War II: Started badly (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) but ended very well (the Russians did most of the fighting/dying and the United States ended up in a position of global preponderance).

Korean War: Started badly and ended badly too (a stalemate on the battlefield, and still no peace treaty after nearly 60 years!).

Vietnam: Started badly and ended worse.

Gulf War I: Started well (Security Council Resolution and big coalition) and ended pretty well too (going to Bagdad would have been a mistake, as we learned a decade later).

Kosovo: Started badly but ended a bit better (Kosovo now independent, but it’s still an international ward.

Afghanistan: Started well (Taliban  toppled) but is going to end badly.

Iraq War: Started well (remember "Mission Accomplished?") but is ending badly.

Libyan War: Started well (i.e., the siege of Benghazi ended) but the ending is still unknown.  Of course, maybe this war shouldn’t be on the list, because the Obama administration doesn’t even think it constitutes "hostilities").

By my count, only four of these thirteen wars fit the pattern of "starting badly and ending well." More interestingly, both of our major recent wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) started well but are destined to end badly, largely because both wars involved prolonged occupations of societies riven by internal divisions and where there is a deeply-rooted antipathy to foreign interference, and because the Bush administration was wildly over-confident about the efficacy of military force.

Bottom line: be wary of drawing big lessons from the war of 1812.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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