American soldiers have been deployed abroad almost continuously since the end of World War II. The best-known foreign interventions—in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—were large, long, and costly. But there have been dozens of other such deployments, many smaller or shorter, for purposes ranging from deterrence to training. Taken as a whole, these operations have had a decidedly mixed record. Some, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which swept the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, largely succeeded. But others—such as those in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere—were disappointments or outright failures. It is these unsuccessful post–Cold War interventions that have engendered serious doubts among policymakers and the public about the role of force in U.S. foreign policy.
Even so, U.S. decisionmaking still has a strong bias in favor of military intervention. When crises emerge, the pressure for a U.S. military response is often immediate, on the grounds that it is better to try to control the situation than to do nothing. But in many cases, the United States could likely have achieved its goals without intervening militarily. To explore how often U.S. military interventions have advanced U.S. objectives, we built a database of conflicts and crises that involved U.S. interests between 1946 and 2018. Conflict cases were drawn from the Uppsala Conflict Data Project and crisis cases came from the International Crisis Behavior data set.…
The remainder of this commentary is available at foreignaffairs.com.
Jennifer Kavanagh is senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Bryan Frederick is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on March 30, 2023. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.