America’s Wars: Interventions, Regime Change, and Insurgencies after the Cold War

  • Published

America’s Wars: Interventions, Regime Change, and Insurgencies after the Cold War by Thomas H. Henriksen. Cambridge University Press, 2022, 324 pp. 

Documenting America’s military actions since the fall of the Soviet Union, Thomas Henriksen provides a compact and succinct outline of US intervention in Panama, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and efforts throughout the continent of Africa.

Henriksen, an academic and emeritus senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, provides a temperate historical overview of these conflicts with elements of international relations theory embedded throughout the analysis. In examining conflict during America’s unipolar moment, Henriksen portrays the United States as a liberal hegemon using its unrivaled power to project Wilsonian-like internationalism across the globe.

Henriksen’s evaluation appears heavily influenced by mainstream liberal internationalist thought, accepting America’s role as the enforcement arm of the liberal or “rules-based” international order. Despite this, he occasionally references international relations scholars and theorists with realist inclinations. While this work focuses primarily on the conflicts mentioned above, the brief conclusion offers an estimation of America’s power projection capabilities in the imminent world of great power competition.

The author’s views remain relatively absent during the book’s first chapters. Still, the more nuanced analysis dissipates as the more recent and politically charged conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout Africa take center stage in the latter half of the work. While he is willing to concede misjudgment in some instances, Henriksen strongly suggests that any misfortunes seen in our recent foreign policy prescriptions are due to a lack of escalation, even in the face of repeated failure.

We have all heard the aphorism, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Yet, time and time again, Henriksen cannot seem to accept the practical application of this maxim, which is the reality of unintended consequences. Instead, when policies fail to materialize, every setback, complication, and frustration is met with the same passive refrain. All would have been well had we just executed said plan even more.

The subtle implications throughout the work echo the tired cliches of the armchair interventionists, who appear convinced that our actions in no way influence our adversaries. Thus, any policy out of Washington is necessarily a good policy, and the true motivations of critics are questioned. While remaining fairly mild, Henriksen says that a commander who continues down the path of past mistakes shows "a profile in courage,” but one who scales back is retreating. Those who support intervention are patriotic and show “altruism,” while skeptics “trivialize the sacrifice” of our service members. Though he briefly notes the cost of the past two decades of continued warfare, both in American lives and resources, legitimate concerns about the direction of US foreign policy are usually dismissed. Critics who oppose prolonged entanglements, he says, “have no realistic plan” as an alternative.

The logical conundrums the author finds himself in to justify his bias toward intervention are evident in his overview of intervention in Libya and the second-order effects this had on conflicts throughout Africa. He notes in earnest the “fire spread” throughout the region when Tuareg militants, formerly loyal to the deposed dictator Qaddafi, returned to Mali from Libya. The militants seized control of the northern portion of the country, unleashing a wave of violence and terror that spread though the region.

The destabilization of northern Africa empowered terrorism and militancy, with Henriksen specifically noting numerous subsequent military coups, the rise of AQIM, Ansar Dine, Book Haram, and the terror of other violent extremist organizations who conducted mass murder, kidnapping, and terrorism throughout Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and others.

Yet, somehow, the chapter concludes with the assertion that the “interventionist response” in Northern Africa was a “prominent victory” in deterring terrorist attacks. The problem with Libya, he reasons, was that there was not a firm enough commitment in the aftermath of intervention. There was “no follow-on treatment to stabilize the chaotic nation.” The prescription always supports more escalation, more involvement and more intervention, no matter the cost.

Thus, blowback only flows in one direction, where the hand is not heavy enough. This refusal to acknowledge unintended consequences, or to selectively assess them in accordance with a preconceived agenda, is certainly a mistake that any policy maker or military theorist should avoid as we anticipate and plan for future conflicts; at the very least, because it opens policy makers to the risk of making avoidable mistakes.

For example, he concedes that “Iraq stands out in many ways as the exception” due to the “higher costs in lives and money” after the “strategic miscalculation” of removing a regional counterbalance to Iran. But he clarifies this admonition by stating the mistake was in the withdrawal, not the intervention itself. In this way, we see why his evaluation of second-order effects in Libya appears disordered. If those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, it stands to reason that those who learn the wrong lessons are also doomed to repeat them.

This point cannot be overstated. The rising threats we face as a nation are of vital importance as we see a return to superpower politics. Assessing the consequences of our actions so we can effectively plan for contingencies, is essential to mission accomplishment. So, too, is assessing the rational calculus of our adversaries to consider how they will respond to our actions.

These two points make up the facets of Sun Tzu’s famous proverb, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Unfortunately, in this book, the focus is on neither.

Second Lieutenant Micah Mudlaff, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."