When great powers intervene in minor countries, sometimes
they win quick and fairly decisive victories. (Think U.S. in Grenada). When this happens, the only short-term problem is where to
hold the victory parade and how many medals to give out. But when a war of choice goes badly, then
national leaders have to decide either to cut their losses and get out or to "stay
the course." If the opponent is an
insatiable great power like the Third Reich, there may be little choice in the
matter. But if the enemy is an
insurgency in a relatively weak and unimportant state, and the challenge is nation-building in
a society that you don't understand very well, it's a much trickier decision.
As we've seen in Iraq and are seeing again in Afghanistan, getting
out of a quagmire is a whole lot harder than getting into one. Indeed, I'd argue that this is a
general tendency in most wars of choice: they usually last longer than the
people who launch them expect, and they usually cost a lot more. I'm hardly the first person to notice
this phenomenon, which does make you wonder why it keeps happening.
In any case, now that we are (supposedly) leaving Iraq, here
are my Top Ten Reasons why wars of choice last too long, and why it's so hard
for politicians to wake up, smell the coffee, and just get out.
1. Political leaders get
trapped by their own beliefs. All human beings tend to interpret new information in light of their
pre-existing beliefs, and therefore tend to revise strongly-held views more
slowly than they should. Having
made the difficult decision to go to war (or to escalate a war that is already
under way) it will be hard for any
leader to rethink the merits of that decision, even if lots of information
piles up suggesting that it was a blunder.
2. Information in war
is often ambiguous. Another reason wars of choice last too long is that the case for cutting
one's losses is rarely crystal-clear.
Even if there is lots of evidence that the war is going badly, there are
bound to be some positive signs too. Remember all those "benchmarks" the Bush administration
developed for measuring progress in Iraq?
If you have enough of them, you can always find a few items on the list where things
are looking better. When the
evidence is mixed (as it usually is), leaders are even less likely to rethink
their beliefs that the war is worth fighting.
3. The "sunk cost
fallacy." Once a country
has invested significant amounts of blood and treasure in war, decision-makers
may erroneously believe that cutting losses would be "wasteful" and that it is necessary
to fight on in order to redeem those earlier sacrifices. This reasoning is faulty: it only makes
sense to continue a war if doing so is likely to lead to a better outcome at an
acceptable cost. But politicians
may not see it that way, especially if there are domestic constituencies that
will remind them of the price that has already been paid and accuse them of
squandering earlier sacrifices.
4. Political leaders
have little incentive to admit mistakes and reverse course. President Bush took a huge gamble
when he decided to invade Iraq in 2003. He naively believed a bunch of unreliable advisors, exaggerated the
threat that Iraq posed to U.S. interests, and thought the invasion would
"transform" the Middle East cheaply and quickly. When his calculations proved woefully wrong, admitting
he had made a mistake would have been politically suicidal. Instead, like other leaders, he decided
to "gamble for resurrection," in the hope that things would turn around and
justify his original decision.
5. The people who got
you into the war aren't the ones who can get you out. What goes for leaders goes for their
subordinates too: was there any chance that the people who led Bush into Iraq
(Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice et al.) would suddenly rethink their
positions and help him get us out?
Of course not. The
literature on war termination shows clearly that ending a war usually requires
getting rid of the team that got you in and it sometimes requires replacing the
entire leadership coalition itself. It is no accident that U.S. strategy in Iraq didn't improve until Bush got
rid of Rumsfeld and most of the neoconservatives, thereby making a change of
6. Great powers can
always fight on. Another
reason great powers fight "wars of choice" too long is simply because they
can. The costs may be far greater
than the benefits, but great powers are rarely driven from the field by a
complete military collapse, especially when they are fighting much weaker
adversaries. True, the Iraq war
was a costly blunder, but the United States could have stayed in for another
year or two or three if it absolutely had to. And we see the same phenomenon in Afghanistan: what's another
$100 billion when your GDP is $13 trillion and when you can borrow the money
from foreigners and make future generations pay for it?
To make matters worse, powerful states can always come up
with new strategic innovations and convince themselves that this holds the key
to victory. Commanders can be replaced, the field of battle can be expanded,
new weapons can be developed and employed (drone wars, anyone?), or new tactics
can be developed and implemented. And to be fair, in some cases strategic innovation will turn the tide
and lead to victory. But the
ability to keep trying something new also makes it harder for political leaders
to conclude that the war just isn't worth continuing, because there will always
be someone telling them that they have a clever idea that will win the war.
7. The military hates
losing. We expect our military services to focus
on winning, and we want them to execute assigned missions with enthusiasm and
dedication. The uniformed services are often less prone to favor war than civilians are, but once they are sent
in harm's way, they are probably the last institution who will want to admit
that things aren't going well or recommend getting out short of
victory. How many generals will
tell the president that they simply can't win (or that they can't do so at an
acceptable cost)? Plus, the Pentagon is bound to worry that it will be blamed
for failure, even if it wasn't really their fault. The result is that the most politically powerful institution
on matters of war and peace is going to be strongly biased toward "staying the
8. The people at the
top may not know how bad things really are. This problem is a corollary of No. 7. In most bureaucracies -- including
the military -- there's a tendency for good news to flow uphill and for bad news
to get suppressed. Subordinates
want to make themselves look good and are likely to spin their own performance
in a positive light. The generals
charged with prosecuting the war are likely to present an upbeat picture,
partly to sustain troop morale, partly to bolster public support, and partly
because they know that is what their civilian leaders want to hear. If this tendency is not countered, however,
wars keep going because those responsible for the ultimate decisions do not
have an accurate sense of what is really going on.
concern for "credibility." Great powers often stay in losing wars
not because the stakes in a particular conflict are so large, but because they
fear that withdrawal will have profound effects on their reputation and
far-reaching repercussions elsewhere.
The scholarly literature on this issue suggests that these concerns are usually exaggerated, but that doesn't stop pundits from making this claim and doesn't stop politicians from listening to it. This was a common refrain during the Vietnam War, of course, and we
hear loud echoes of it now. If we
get out of Afghanistan, we are told, al Qaeda will be emboldened, its
recruitment will soar, and our allies around the world will conclude we are
wimps and abandon us. Of
course, getting out of Vietnam didn't have any of these effects (the United States won the
Cold War, remember?) and it is just as likely that getting out of Afghanistan
would undercut jihadi narratives
about Western imperialism and allow the United States to focus its military
efforts on places that really matter. Indeed, U.S. credibility may suffer far more if it keeps squandering its
power on costly but unnecessary conflicts.
10. National pride. Nationalism is a very powerful
force, and great powers usually have lots of reasons to be impressed by their
own accomplishments. When you're
very wealthy and very powerful, and when your national history is mostly one of
great good fortune (e.g., like the United States), it is hard to believe that
there are some military tasks that you may not be able to accomplish at an
acceptable price tag. Lyndon
Johnson just couldn't quite believe that "Asians in black pajamas" could defeat
the mighty United States, and it must be hard for many Americans to figure out
why we can't sort things out in Afghanistan, defeat the Taliban once and for
all, and round up bin Laden while we are at it. On any list of the reasons why wars last too long, hubris deserves a prominent
None of this is to argue that great powers like the United
States should never send troops in harm's way, or that sometimes they have to
fight on even when things aren't going well. Instead, this list is a reminder that unleashing the
dogs of war is an unpredictable business, and that is a whole lot easier to
get in than it is to get out.
Please remember that the next time someone comes up with a clever scheme
for how the United States can solve all of its problems through some swift and
surgical military strike. When a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
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