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U.S. Has Long History of Waging Wrong Wars

George W. Bush, according to author and columnist Max Boot, is a "hard Wilsonian" — a president who "successfully wields power in the service of a higher purpose."

This label means using our armed forces not just to defend the United States but to solve the problems of the world.

How did Woodrow Wilson (search) become an inspiration for U.S. foreign policy? In 1913, Wilson proclaimed, "I am going to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men," and he dispatched soldiers to Mexico, where one president had been overthrown and another assassinated. Wilson failed to install a good government, he failed to catch the bandit Pancho Villa (search) who had raided U.S. border towns, and he made enemies throughout the hemisphere.

In 1917, Wilson persuaded Congress to declare war against Germany, so that the U.S. could make the world "safe for democracy." By entering World War I on the side of France and Great Britain, Wilson enabled them to win a decisive victory and impose vindictive surrender terms on Germany. This move triggered a bitter nationalist reaction, generating political support for Hitler.

Meanwhile, Wilson pressured and bribed the Russian Provisional Government (search) to stay in the war. But staying in the war accelerated the collapse of the Russian army, and by the fall of 1917, when Lenin made his fourth coup attempt, there was hardly any Russian army left to defend the government. Lenin established secret police, concentration camps and a reign of terror, and the result was seven decades of Soviet communism.

Even though the United States defeated Hitler in World War II, within five years more people lived under totalitarian regimes than before the war, as communists came to power in Eastern Europe and China. Millions ended up exchanging a Nazi tyranny for a communist tyranny.

In 1950, President Harry Truman (search) entered the Korean War (search) on the assumption that China would stay out. He guessed wrong, and hordes of Chinese soldiers forced the U.S. to accept a stalemate that cost over 33,000 American lives. Americans were disillusioned with Truman's misadventures, and he decided not to run for re-election.

Confident about America's overwhelming firepower, President Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War during the 1960s. But the North Vietnamese adopted guerrilla tactics to elude most of the bombs, and American soldiers were at a disadvantage in strange jungles. More than 58,000 Americans were killed. The quagmire forced Johnson to give up the idea of seeking re-election in 1968.

For a while, there was a reluctance to enter foreign wars, which neoconservatives denounced as the "Vietnam syndrome." Supposedly, all would be well only if a president entered wars more energetically, with more determination to persist till victory. But U.S. experience suggests that success requires more than a higher purpose.

Any country does better defending itself than fighting other people's wars. Problems arise when invading a foreign country, such as fighting on unfamiliar terrain and dealing with people who speak different languages and have very different values. A foreign country's actions are hard for the U.S. to predict. Moreover, because the U.S. is fighting in somebody else's country, its adversaries know that eventually the troops are going home, and if they hold out long enough, they could prevail.

Demands to go home generally increase as casualties rise when Americans don't believe the sacrifices are for their vital interests. Imagine how Americans will feel if their loved ones lose their lives trying to establish democracy in Iraq, and the outcome is an anti-American, Iranian-style, Shiite (search) theocracy.

If, in the name of fighting terrorism and reforming the world, the U.S. embarks on a policy of perpetual war, its ability to fight as effectively as possible when it really counts will be undermined. Already, the armed forces have had difficulty conducting operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. There's much concern about enlistment rates for a volunteer army because of the Pentagon's "stop loss" orders forcing tens of thousands of soldiers to remain on active duty perhaps a year longer than they had bargained for.

In addition, the U.S. invasion of nuke-free Iraq and its restraint with nuke-armed North Korea send a signal that other nations should secretly accelerate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons since they deter U.S. intervention. U.S. actions encourage the nuclear proliferation it is intended to prevent.

Woodrow Wilson left a legacy of trouble.


Jim Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Wilson’s War, FDR’s Folly and The Triumph of Liberty.