Dan Trombly has a chacteristically thoughtful post on lessons we’ve learned (or not learned) from recent interventions. In it, he writes:

Today, [Shadi] Hamid and other interventionists claim that we are “over-learning” the lessons of Iraq and Libya by being cautious about Syria. But far more than over-internalizing the lessons of Iraq, non-interventionists are acting from what is basically a relatively consistent U.S. opposition to wars except in cases of severe threat, based on moral principles and a relatively sound understanding of the international strategic context and the unpredictable nature of war. In reducing U.S. foreign policy into a cycle of overcompensation and emotional overreaction, Hamid, [Jonathan] Chait and others pathologize the arguments for non-intervention rather than needing to directly confront them on their merits – a theme that Chait has sounded since the Libya debate, when he claimed that opponents of the war were simply bitterly reliving the lead-up to Iraq.

I think this is fair. But I think there is another issue at work, namely the insistence that any intervention be able to “solve” the problem in question rather than, say, just mitigate the problem, or perhaps even simply punish misbehavior, or even just engage in norm building.

I would argue there is a certain pathology built into our intervention debates in the sense that they often seem to revolve around unrealistic standards. The reality is that interventions—and uses of force generally—are almost never politically decisive. Recall Clausewitz’s insight that, “In war, the result is never final.” Losers will try to overturn the outcome politically, and the realization of this deters winners from pursuing absolute ends.

This explains why we refuse to accept victory when we see it. We won the war in Iraq in 2003—removed Saddam Hussein, ensured there was no WMD program, and normalized Iraq’s status internationally. And then we spent the next seven years trying, somehow, to ensure that Iraq would never again be a security challenge. Well, we failed in the latter goal. Iraq remains a messy, dangerous, unstable place. So we code Iraq a failure, despite the fact that we achieved virtually all of our war aims. Similarly in Afghanistan, we toppled the Taliban, destroyed Al Qaeda’s infrastructure, captured terrorist leaders, and gathered intelligence. But we’re now in year eleven of trying to ensure it is “never again” a threat. So again, we’re going to see this as a failure. In Somalia in 1992-93, we saved tens of thousands of lives but we failed to build a functioning state. So failure. I could go on.

We continue to think in those terms. Opponents of intervention in Syria argue, essentially, that since we can’t solve the problem, we shouldn’t try. But is that the right standard? Why isn’t mitigation, or punishment, or norm-reinforcement a perfectly valid goal? Indeed, I would argue that having modest goals and limited expectations is the sine qua non of a plausible intervention policy.

We shouldn’t be asking “can we fix it?” but rather “can we make things better?” I get that this is can become too loose a standard. But that is a bridge we can cross when we get to it. If we ever get to the point where our objectives strike me as too modest, I’ll be happy to weigh in and try to get the pendulum moving back in the right direction. But at this juncture, we’re dealing with the opposite problem.

More interventions might be tolerable if those interventions were more limited and constrained. But right now we have the worst of both worlds. We fail to use force in cases when we can improve the situation because we are daunted by the prospect of “fixing” the situation but then when do use force, we often do so in pursuit of unattainable goals.

All or nothing is not a sound foundation for use of force decisions.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is associate professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His arguments are his own and do not represent the views or opinions of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense. This was originally posted on his personal blog BernardFinel.com.