Opinion

The limits of power

To avoid bruising defeats, the U.S. must recognize what it can't change

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

Farewell to nation building. Historians, analysts, and pundits will spend years sorting out the lessons of the U.S.'s failed 20-year war in Afghanistan, but this much is clear: We can't expect that any amount of money, troops, bombs, or deaths can turn a hostile, broken nation with a determined insurgency into a friendly, functional democracy. The U.S. had searing proof of that in Vietnam, but the shock of 9/11 created a national amnesia that the Bush administration exploited in trying to nation-build Afghanistan, and then, more recklessly, Iraq. Enormous sacrifices by our soldiers and the people of these nations have yielded chaos, carnage, disappointment, new terrorist groups, and a flood of refugees. "We assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable," Emma Ashford of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security told The New York Times this week. "We overreach."

In overreaching, we've learned we can vaporize a terrorist through a drone operated hundreds of miles away, only to see more spring up in his place. We can remove dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi, but in the ensuing vacuum, we can't erase ancient sectarian and tribal divisions and create peaceful, self-governing nations. We can restrain the aggressions of Russia, China, and North Korea, but only to a limited degree. This isn't to say the U.S. is powerless, or that isolationism is a viable alternative. Our military remains a necessary check on bully states and autocrats, our economy a powerful engine of progress, our freedom and ideals — however imperfectly realized — an inspiration. Warts and all, the U.S. is still an indispensable nation. But as we recover from our bad habit of trying to fix what can't be fixed, our leaders might find some needed guidance in the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

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