During my childhood, the government of the United States assumed responsibility for the fate of the entire non-Communist world. I discovered while researching American Tragedy that the Eisenhower Administration had written policy statements pledging to defend every threatened area of the world against hypothetical Communist aggression--and to use nuclear weapons to do so. That led Ike to the brink of war over Laos in the waning months of his term in office, and it created enormous pressure on John F. Kennedy to intervene massively in both Laos and South Vietnam during 1961. Kennedy, however, refused to do so, against the unanimous advice of his senior advisers. He repeatedly argued taht South Vietnam would be a terrible place to fight. Within months of his death, however, Lyndon Johnson had decided to send large numbers of American troops to save the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam once he was re-elected, and in 1965 he did just that.
That decision, of course, eventually destroyed the public consensus on the need to defend territories threatened by Communism. The number of American troops in South Vietnam reached half a million in 1968, peaking early in the next year at a little over that figure, and 14,000 Americans died there in that year--about three times the entire American killed in action since the "war on terror" began in 2001. President Nixon did not abandon the objective of maintaining a non-Communist South Vietnam, but he eliminated the American ground combat prsence by 1972 and signed a peace agreement in January 1973. The United States, however, had never managed to set up a South Vietnamese government that commanded the support of its people or fielded an army that could stand up to the North Vietnamese without US help. When the North Vietnamese attacked again in 1975, South Vietnam collapsed.
The National Security bureaucracy, as Andrew Bacevich as pointed out, did not abandon the objective of defending the non-Communist world after Vietnam. Even before Saigon fell, the Ford Administration tried to involve the US covertly in a civil war against a Soviet-backed regime in Angola. But Vietnam did make military leaders, in particular, much more cautious about the use of American ground troops overseas. Jimmy Carter in 1979 started a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and pledged to defend the Persian Gulf region by force if necessary, but no one put that resolve to the test. The Reagan Administration became more confrontational with the Soviet Union, and it seemed at the time as if some of its civilian leaders wanted to use US forces in Central America and the Middle East. The military resisted, however--except for the brief, ill-fated deployment of the Marines in Lebanon--and there were no more big foreign wars. As long as members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, who had been junior officers during Vietnam, led the US military, caution prevailed. Powell in 1991 also helped ensure that the US would limit its objectives to liberating Kuwait, not overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and thus ensured that the first major post-Vietnam conflict would result in a quick and easy victory instead of another quagmire.
The Boom generations' advent into power began to loosen these restraints. Bill Clinton sent some troops into Somalia, and in his second term, he committed the US to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and fought a war for the independence of Kosovo. The advent of the George W. Bush Administration moved us into a completely new era. Its leaders came into office determined to remove Saddam from office. Then came 9/11, and they committed themselves to nothing less than a campaign to determine the political future of the Muslim world, by any means necessary. The campaign began with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has continued--under three Administrations--to include support for the Arab spring, two episodes of regime change in Egypt, the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, drone strikes from West Africa to Pakistan, and now, support for a Saudi war in Yemen and a new confrontation with Iran.
The war in Afghanistan has gone on for nearly 17 years. Given that Afghanistan had at least three times the population, spread over a much larger area, of South Vietnam, it is not surprising that a much smaller American and allied troop commitment failed to stabilize the country. Now the foreign forces have mostly been withdrawn and the situation resembles the situation in South Vietnam in 1964 (before the massive US intervention) or in 1975 (on the eve of the North Vietnamese offensive.) We have never managed to establish an effective Afghan government or military, and government security forces are suffering major defeats in much of the country at the hands of the Taliban, supported, it is now recognized, by the government of Pakistan. The Arab Spring did not lead to democracy in much of the Middle East, and led to a catastrophic failure of democracy in the leading nation of Egypt. The Iraq war has fragmented Iraq and led to the birth of ISIS. Turkey is now a hostile nation. By any rational measure, the policies undertaken by George W. Bush in 2001 and continued, in many ways, by his two successors,. have catastrophically failed.
Yet they continue--because the national security establishment has learned to keep them off the public's radar. We still have lost less than one tenth of the men who died in Vietnam, and we have very few ground troops fighting anywhere. The country has largely lost interest in the Middle East. But US drones are killing suspected militants over a huge swath of territory--even though there is no proof that these killings do anything but harm in the long run, either. We now seem to be running a failed policy on automatic pilot, and we are too concerned with our domestic crisis to pay sustained attention.
President Trump, of course, has renounced the whole thrust of post-1945 US foreign policy, treating NATO like some kind of protection racket, moving from free trade to protectionism, and repudiating the very idea of international norms and institutions. These too are very serious steps and deserve more discussion at another time. But he is far from our only problem. We must eventually be forced to the conclusion that we might have reached long ago: that the Muslim world, like the European one, will have to work out its political development on its own. In any case, that is what it is doing--whether Washington likes it or not. It will be some time, apparently, before out political leadership resumes serious discussion of our place in the world, and perhaps makes a new accommodation to a new reality.