“Defining Deviancy Down” was the provocative title of a 1993 essay by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who criticized what he saw as growing American permissiveness toward behavior by his fellow citizens that should have been considered criminal or at least unacceptable.
Sometimes, though, lowering the bar (or setting the bar low) is called for. Not every situation can be perfected or resolved, at least not at a level of effort and cost justified by the stakes.
Take the case of Iraq. The contrast between the two presidents Bush and their wars with Saddam Hussein is striking and informative. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, defined success as reversing Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait. He resisted calls that the U.S.-led coalition “go to Baghdad” to oust Iraq’s leadership. The downside of his decision to embrace a limited definition of success was that Hussein remained in power (albeit much weakened); the upside was that the United States avoided the high human, economic, military and diplomatic costs of removing him and trying to replace his regime with something markedly better.
George W. Bush set the bar higher. He defined success as removing Hussein, something he believed would transform the politics of not just Iraq but the entire Middle East. Bush succeeded in ousting Hussein, but at a high cost — and the expected benefits did not materialize in Iraq or the region. We would have been better off without Bush’s war of choice.
North Korea offers another example of the case for defining success down. In June 1950, the North Koreans invaded the South. The United States, under the aegis of the United Nations, responded. The goal was to restore the border and liberate South Korea. Where the United States got into trouble was its decision to march north of the 38th parallel after the border had been restored. Gen. Douglas MacArthur pushed for, and President Harry Truman approved, expanded U.S. objectives in the flush of tactical success after the inspired landing at Inchon. But neither China nor the Soviet Union was prepared to allow the entire Korean Peninsula to fall into the American orbit. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” joined the North Korean forces and pushed back. Three years and 30,000 American lives later, the United States agreed to an armistice based on a division of Korea at the same 38th parallel. Accepting a limited result early on would have proven far preferable to trying to bring about complete success.
These examples and considerations bear direct relevance for U.S. foreign policy today. Afghanistan is a case in point as the United States weighs what goals it should seek to bring about and what resources it should be prepared to expend.
In Afghanistan, success could be defined a number of ways: limiting al-Qaeda’s ability to operate on Afghan territory; weakening or defeating the Taliban; eliminating drug production; building democracy. The problem is that even modest objectives will prove ambitious in the “graveyard of empires.” President Obama has opted for a modest but not minimalist strategy of targeting al-Qaeda, weakening the Taliban and strengthening the central government. History suggests two pieces of advice. First, if the Obama administration is fortunate enough to achieve these goals, it should resist expanding U.S. objectives. Second, if it fails to meet its objectives, it should resist increasing its effort much beyond current levels. Instead, it should limit the scale of what it seeks.
Such reasoning holds true for Iran as well. It is highly unlikely that the United States will be able to persuade or pressure Iran to forgo uranium enrichment entirely. The best that can be hoped for is a ceiling on what Tehran does — in particular, not enrich uranium to a concentration required for a weapon — and intrusive inspections so that the world can be confident of this. The outcome is less than ideal, to say the least, but it is one we could live with.
Defining success down in the case of contemporary North Korea would mean accepting that Pyongyang is not about to give up its handful of nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States would work in tandem with China to limit the development of North Korea’s arsenal and discourage it from transferring material or technology to others.
Some will argue that defining success down is defeatist. And certainly, one can imagine an Afghanistan or an Iraq that becomes a Jeffersonian democracy and an Iran or a North Korea that gets out of the nuclear business. But such outcomes are improbable at best and more likely fantasy. Moreover, far greater involvement and investment would still fail to bring them about.
The alternatives are outcomes that are good enough and commensurate with interests and costs. The moment calls for defining success down. The United States is stretched economically and militarily. Better partial success we can afford than expensive failures we cannot.
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.