World War II with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Korea with the unprovoked invasion of the South by the North, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, and the attacks of 11 September 2001 were all responses to unprovoked aggression. And only in World War II did Congress formally declare war.
Regarding the post-war periods, only after World War II were we ready for the peace even though it took Soviet Russia's occupation of Eastern Europe ultimately to coalesce Europe and America into a military alliance to contain and deter Moscow's ambitions.
Several conclusions are clear. First, America does best when it is the unambiguous target for aggression. Elective wars are not our strong suit as evidenced by Vietnam and the current Gulf War.
Second, our record for post-war planning is mixed at best. Failure to deal effectively with post-World War I Europe produced the even more destructive Second World War. South Korea ultimately developed into a flourishing democracy although the transition was long and painful. We got thrown out of Vietnam. After liberating Kuwait, we saw little need for constructing a regional security structure beyond containing and isolating Saddam. And Afghanistan is in danger of failing because of the inability to make lasting reforms in the civil sector.
Third, our understanding of non-Western societies has been weak. MacArthur got it right in Japan. He did not in Korea. Nor have we since.
In the broader sweep of history, our 2003 invasion of Iraq reflected past errors and miscalculations in failing to think through the post-war situation. The greatest fear is that the post-war period in the region could come to resemble that of Europe in 1914 or 1918—a great deal of unfinished business that later led to catastrophe.
The greater Middle East is clearly not Europe of nearly a century ago. However, an abundance of radical ideologies threaten virtually every regime in the region. Despair and repression are widespread and provide the fuel for a conflagration. While the United States is unlikely to retreat to a Fortress America, its lack of credibility and influence in the region and the presence of so much hostility to its policies greatly constrain any capacity for action.
Going to war for mistaken, wrong, or trumped-up reasons is a formula for disaster. As the U.S.-Iran standoff continues, one hopes the White House has an unambiguous understanding of that fact and of the magnitude of the consequences military action will have if we take out Iran's still fledging nuclear facilities. Unilateral U.S. strikes into Pakistan's northwest frontier against Taliban and al Qaeda forces could likewise prove strategically catastrophic. Meanwhile, conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, and what happens in Iraq as the surge winds down is unpredictable.
One can argue about whether history repeats. But most worrisome today is our fixation on the present and our failure to think through the ultimate political and strategic objectives the use of force can achieve beyond defeating or disarming an armed enemy. Failure to pursue this understanding augurs badly for the future.