05/09/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

Presidents Going to War

In my baby boomer lifetime, I have watched well intentioned presidents and their advisors repeatedly lead the country into wars that kill and maim our young people, drain our economic resources, do not advance our national security, and in retrospect should never have been fought. Why are these catastrophic decisions repeatedly made by Democrats and Republicans alike? As President Obama considers what to do in Syria, lessons can be learned from our experiences with the Vietnam War, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and the extended war in Afghanistan.

Policy makers in the 1960s saw Vietnam through the lens of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the strategic conflict with communist China. Missing was a nuanced understanding of Ho Chi Minh as primarily interested in expelling foreigners whether they be French or American, and his willingness to fight a war at any cost for his nationalistic goals. Vietnam had a long history of hostility towards China. Although willing to work with the Chinese communists to advance their own objectives, such Vietnamese acceptance of support was far from China extending its reach to knock down dominos and take over Southeast Asia. This failure to understand the enemy's objectives and willingness to sacrifice was compounded by the Johnson Administration's unwarranted confidence in a series of corrupt and unpopular South Vietnam leaders seen by many of their population as the puppets of foreigners.

The tragedy of Vietnam was exacerbated further by continuous recommendations by our military leaders, for larger numbers of troops - just one more escalation would turn the tide. Mission creep caused the touting of how many enemies were killed in any month as a measure of success. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger continued the war for 6 more years. With over 58,000 Americans killed and over 300,000 wounded, all of them brave young men and women, and a cost of over half a trillion in today's dollars, it was indeed tragic. Add to that over 800,000 Vietnamese estimated killed and countless injured, and one can see the extent of the destruction. All of this mayhem, intended to stop Communism and show American strength, did the opposite. The war became very unpopular with our allies and others around the world and demonstrated how a fanatically dedicated third world people without airpower could defeat the mighty US military. The war inadvertently contributed to the rise of the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after that country was bombed, and it caused tremendous disillusionment among many of our young people including some returning veterans such as Chuck Hagel and John Kerry.

The Iraq invasion of 2003 was similarly affected by a president's failure to understand the complicated forces at play in the targeted country and the potential consequences of military action. In 1991, President George HW Bush had wisely stopped the Desert Storm force from taking over Iraq. The mission then was clearly defined -- drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait and prevent him from threatening the world's most important source of energy in Saudi Arabia and surrounding states. The necessary and brilliantly executed campaign had a meaningful group of allies including other Arab countries. There was no mission creep nor taking on the dangers of occupying Iraq.

George W. Bush, abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other advisors, took a much different approach. Just as Johnson had failed to understand the forces at work within Vietnam, the Bush Administration failed to understand what it was getting into in Iraq. This included failures to understand Shite-Sunni pressures and what would happen if the bottle containing them was uncorked, failure to foresee the immense cost and effort required to occupy the country, failure to see the harm done by dismissing tens of thousands of Iraqis from government jobs and its army, failure regarding the existence of chemical and nuclear weapons, failure to see the huge strategic opportunity created for Iran by removing its greatest enemy, and failure to appreciate that Saddam was not involved in the 9-11 attacks. After the invasion, mission creep resulted in a full-bore effort costing hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq. Our occupation put US forces in the middle of a civil war and sparked opposition among Muslims throughout the world, creating an impetus for increased violent extremist activity in the region. Removing the secular Saddam, an implacable foe of neighboring Islamist led Iran, also removed a means to stop Iran's nuclear program. And Bush, like Johnson, believed the optimistic views of Generals and others who predicted the US would be hailed as liberators and welcomed by most as a stabilizing force in a quick and easy occupation. In reality, that occupation dragged on for over 8 years resulting in more than 4,600 Americans killed, and 33,000 wounded, and over 200,000 Iraqis killed and 2 million displaced from their homes. A mission to remove Saddam and destroy his supposed weapons of mass destruction expanded into a massive effort to create a democracy in a country that had never known it, and rebuild the economy.

In Afghanistan, the initial attacks were well executed and necessary. The mission of punishing the Taliban government and Al Qaeda's Afghan operation was accomplished in the first month. But once again mission creep led to occupation of Afghanistan, rebuilding one of the poorest countries in the world, and supporting a corrupt dictator. This occupation, resented by the Muslim world, has lasted over 10 years. President Obama doubled down on the mistake by increasing our troop levels. Neither Bush nor Obama fully understood the difficulty of trying to rebuild the impoverished country whose main export is heroin or winning allegiance of a population that hates foreign invaders and is built on a warlord culture and tribal loyalties. We should have learned from the prior Russian and British invasions. Something is clearly wrong if Afghans - known as some of the toughest fighters in world - need to be trained by us to defeat the Taliban, and cannot get it right after one year much less 10. Our original mission was not to wipe out the Taliban or make the world safe for Karzai. Yet we have now spent hundreds of billions of dollars and over 2,000 American soldiers have been killed and over 17,000 wounded trying to do that.

So, what are key lessons to be learned from these wars?

Mission: Before a president commits to military action, he must have a clearly defined mission. It is imperative he understand the chances of accomplishing this mission, how he will know when that has happened, and how we will exit from the conflict. It is critical that unless an extraordinary circumstance occurs, he or she not be convinced to expand the mission as happened in trying to rebuild both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president and his civilian advisors set policy: Although US military leaders are highly talented and honorable people, it is not their job to decide on what is in the country's national security interests. They can provide military options and estimates of success, but a president must decide on whether to take the military advice, not just on the initial military action, but on requests for further involvement. A president would also do well to have a healthy skepticism on what can be achieved by military means. How much better off our country would have been if Johnson had ignored the requests for increasing troop levels in Vietnam that never managed to defeat the enemy despite predictions to the contrary? Bush should have refused military requests for expanded Afghan troop levels that would allegedly help rebuild the country and instill democracy. And how well served we were after Kennedy ignored the pleas of some generals to bomb potentially nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba and instead settled the dispute by non-violent means.

Understand Local Cultures: If results are any indication, prior to invading Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan there was no thoughtful understanding of the forces at play or the cultures of the native populations. Presidents must seek out voices that can provide contrasting views of countries in which we may become involved, even if these are sharply different from his immediate advisors. How much better off we would have been if LBJ had closely listened to several individuals like the eloquent Cornell Professor of Southeast Asia Studies George Kahin prior to his decision to escalate in Vietnam. How much better off we all would be if George W. Bush had listened to more thoughtful voices on the culture, religious tensions and Iranian implications prior to involvement in Iraq. Before a decision to intervene is made, a president must have a realistic assessment of the group we will be supporting, forces that may be unleashed by intervention, impact on the population, and strategic consequences.

Is it worth it?: Military action will surely bring death, destruction, and huge financial cost. And many of the outcomes are unpredictable. A president must get to the bottom line and assess whether it is in our national interest to become involved. Was it in our national interest to become engaged in a far-flung land war in Vietnam whose chief protagonist's main objective was driving out foreigners? Was it in our interest to stay for 10 years in Afghanistan after our initial attacks had accomplished punishing the Taliban government and driving Al Qaeda leaders from a base of Afghan power? Was it worth invading an Iraq that provided a buffer towards Iran, over which we already had a no fly zone, and where victory could lead to civil war? And was it worth invading Kuwait to drive out Iraqi forces that had gobbled up another nation and threatened the world's major oil suppliers?

As President Obama considers his options on whether to increase US involvement in Syria, these are key questions he must ask. Much rests on President Obama and future presidents providing thoughtful, correct answers to these questions.