Steve Chapman

Afghanistan seemed simple and painless at the outset. But our mission has been going on for nearly nine years, and the object of our solicitude remains a poor, violent, corruption-riddled country that gives anarchy a bad name. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said this week that the U.S. and its allies are "in the process of losing the war against the Taliban."

The Iraq invasion was supposed to be a cakewalk. Today, seven years and 34,000 casualties later, President Barack Obama says he is on the verge of bringing that war to "a responsible end." But that may hinge on how you define "responsible" and "end."

All U.S. combat troops are supposed to leave this month, but 50,000 will remain at least through 2011. Their timely departure depends on the Iraqi government achieving a tolerable level of safety and stability.

Neither is a sure thing, since July was the deadliest month for civilians in more than two years and the country still lacks a government five months after the national elections. If we leave, Iraq could easily move from severe turmoil to complete chaos. So the administration could decide we can't.

We should have learned from these experiences that money and military force are not enough to redesign the world to suit us. The record also indicates that ambitious interventions abroad are more likely to erode our security than enhance it, bankrupting us in the process.

Maybe it's time to try a different approach to the world. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that the highest proportion of Americans ever, 49 percent, agree that the United States "should mind its own business internationally." Where could they have gotten that idea?

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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