The United States has the most potent military in terms of firepower and operational capacity in history. Our military overthrew Saddam Hussein and crushed the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Our forces can direct a rocket from Nevada through a window in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and nimbly set up nearly 20 Ebola treatment centers in Liberia.
Yet this same military, as writer James Fallows recently pointed out in the Atlantic, has not won its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya or anywhere else in the last 20 years — if winning means creating a stable, capable and ideally democratic governing structure that is able and willing to police its own territory. After the United States poured billions of dollars into the Iraqi army, it fell apart in the face of a few thousand initially lightly armed Islamic State fighters.
Conditions in Afghanistan are in some ways far better than they were before 9/11: Life expectancy has jumped by more than five years; and many more children, girls as well as boys, attend school. But the Taliban remains an active threat. Kabul is haunted by the fear of terrorist attacks. Foreigners have fled. Opium production is up. Corruption is rampant. In Iraq, Nouri Maliki has resigned as prime minister, but the likelihood that Iraq will become a well-governed unified state is nil even if Islamic State is degraded over time. Libya is descending into chaos.
We have not lost because the military and its leaders failed to adapt or because military resources were misdirected. We have lost because we — our civilian leaders, our country — have accepted objectives that are not attainable. Our goal has been to put countries on the road to modernity, to move them toward well-governed, prosperous, democratic states that respect human rights, have an active civil society, treat women and men as equals, have a free press, extend the rule of law to all members of society and encourage market-oriented economic activity.
Our military knows how to fight effectively against an enemy as unconventional as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or Islamic State, but also how to train their Iraqi and Afghan counterparts to pull off complicated military maneuvers.
But what our military cannot do — what no one can do — is to transform domestic political and economic institutions in these countries. We, our leaders and our people, are guilty of assuming that the United States is not only a "city on a hill" but also the natural model for how human beings should organize political authority. We think that modern liberal democracy is what many countries should aspire to and that, absent obstacles, it will spring into existence. This is a chimera.
For most of human history in most of the world, rulers who wield power have invariably acted in their own self-interest. Controlling the state is the path to personal wealth and power. Corruption is not an aberration, it is the lubricant that makes their governing possible. Modern election outcomes in these places are often perverted or produce leaders who have no interest in sustaining accountable governance, even though the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to provide technical election assistance, support political parties and civil society organizations, and establish election monitors.
It does not matter how well our military is trained, how wisely we deploy our defense dollars or how conscientious our politicians might be. Our military intervention cannot put these countries on the path to modernity. We must change our goals if we are to enhance our own national security and provide a better life for the citizens of the countries where we send our men and women to fight.
Our objective should be "good enough" governance, which means ensuring that a state is capable of keeping order within its own boundaries — at least enough order to contain transnational terrorists. The provision of this order may sometimes be arbitrary and brutal. Maintaining order in some countries might require an American military whose primary mission would be to degrade transnational terrorist entities and perhaps intervene to maintain a balance of power among local strongmen.
Where ethnic conflicts have eroded trust, we should encourage decentralization. Ideally, "good enough" governance would include providing some public services such as healthcare and primary education that would not threaten the local elite's ability to extract resources and stay in power. Some degree of economic growth might be possible provided we recognize that these rulers always require their cut of the profits.
Unless we accept that our Wilsonian aspirations are unreachable and counterproductive, the United States will not be able to align its assets — military and civilian — with policies that have a chance of keeping us safer. Such a development just might leave some countries better off than they were before we intervened.
Stephen D. Krasner is a professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was director of policy planning for the State Department from 2005 to 2007.