How Democracies Lose Small Wars
Below the fold is my draft review of Gil Merom’s How Democracies Lose Small Wars. Comments and criticism much appreciated.
UpdateAs regular readers will know, I have a habit of making small mental slips, and this post had two, with a reference to the downfall of Charles II following the English Civil War and to Saddam’s actions following the First Gulf War. Within hours of this post going up here and at Crooked Timber, four different people pointed these errors out to me in email and comments, in the nicest possible way (they’re fixed now)
It’s really great to know that I have so many attentive readers for a long, and rather academic post. And of course, it’s very helpful to have these errors picked up in Ozplogistan where errors are rife and correction is easy, before committing them to the unforgiving permanence of print.
Review of How Democracies Lose Small Wars
This is an interesting, important and problematic book. In important respects, Gil Merom undermines central claims of the “realist” theory of international relations, in which issues such as war and peace are treated as the outcomes of interactions between nation-states, conceived as self-interested individual actors operating in a Hobbesian state of nature. In other respects, he has failed to escape from the assumptions implicit in the realist framework.
The analysis begins with the standard realist idea of the state as embodiment of the nation and takes it as more-or-less self-evident that the state will seek to act in the manner assumed in realist theories, including the use of war as a normal instrument of national policy. Merom then introduces ‘society’ as a counterweight, assumed to be motivated by a mixture of idealist and utilitarian/rational concerns, which typically incline towards pacifism. For convenience, I’ll use the term ‘polity’ to describe the state and society, taken together.
The state is constrained by its instrumental dependence on society, which takes two main forms. The first is the need for society to produce the resources such as material wealth and soldiers that a state needs to pursue its ends. The second is the capacity of society to change its rulers, which casts doubt on the idea of the state as a primary and independent actor.
On the first point, prosecuting a war requires the state to call on social resources, and this is difficult if society is indifferent or actively hostile to the war effort. This has been a problem, to greater or lesser degrees, in all kinds of polities, and the resulting conflicts are a common cause of regime change. For example, it was the demand for “ship money”, a contribution levied to support naval defence, that set in train the events leading to the English Civil War and the downfall of Charles I.
In liberal democratic polities, instrumental dependence becomes more problematic for the state because the processes of democracy require open debate. The kind of coercion required to mobilise resources, the most important form of which is military conscription, is difficult to practice when a war is faced with strong opposition, even from a relatively small minority of the population.
Note though, that Merom does not focus closely on representative democracy as a check on the war-making capacity of states. Rather, the problem is that, in liberal democracies, it is difficult to achieve the suppression of dissent required if a war effort is to be maintained.
Before going on the Merom’s main point, it is worth noting that, although Merom does not explicitly define a “small war”, his analysis and examples imply both an upper and a lower bound for this category. A typical small war will consume between 0.5 and 3 per cent of GDP and will require a commitment of forces equal to a similar proportion of the population.
The reason for the upper bound is obvious enough. A war on a larger scale than this requires a major national war effort. In a democratic society, this will only happen in response to a direct threat to the survival of the society, and therefore the issues are different from those considered by Merom. (Arguably World War I provides a counterexample, since countries that were not directly threatened committed their full force to the war and since the war was maintained long after it should have been obvious that all sides would be better off with the status quo ante. But although it was not ‘The War to end all Wars’, the Great War permanently shifted public opinion in the democratic world to the point where a similar effort could never again be sustained.)
The lower bound follows from a point raised by Merom. Very small wars and “police operations”, such as the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 can be undertaken by the state using spare capacity in the professional armed forces, and funded without the need for any special authorisation. Moreover, these operations can generally be brought to a successful conclusion fairly rapidly, before opposition has time to develop and solidify. Thus, for very small wars there is little of the instrumental dependence central to Merom’s argument.
The key analytical point made by Merom can be developed in the light of this argument. The reason that states in democratic polities lose small wars is that the military resistance of the other side is sufficient to require either a commitment of resources larger than society is willing to sustain or the use of methods, such as torture and attacks on civilian targets, that society is unwilling to accept.
To establish this thesis, it’s necessary to show that, when society does not resist the demands of the state, victory in war generally goes to the stronger party. Merom presents a number of examples including the Athenian destruction of Melos, Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt, German operations in SW Africa, Saddam’s crushing the Kurds and Shiites after the First Gulf War, China and Tibet, Indonesia and East Timor and the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Merom argues that, in all these cases, unscrupulous brutality proved successful.
Yet in nearly every case cited by Merom, a long-term view yields the opposite outcome. The Athenians lost the war and their hegemonic power, as of course did the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Ireland, East Timor and Israel are independent states, identifying in each case with the side described by Merom as the losers. Tibet is not yet independent, but it seems safe to predict that it will become so not long after the Communist Party loses power in China. And then, of course, there’s Saddam.
No doubt better examples could be found, but these examples illustrate the falsity of the claim that is fundamental to the realist theory of international relations, namely, that military power can be used effectively to promote national interests. Even when force appears to work in the short run, it often fails in the long run.
The classic refutation of international realism was put forward in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. Angell argued that in a globalised free-market economic system no economic benefit could be generated even by successful wars of conquest. Writing for a British audience, Angell’s basic point was that, even if Germany succeeded in establishing political mastery in Europe, workers in the newly subjected countries would still have to be paid, goods would have to be purchased at market prices and so on. Hence, individual Germans would gain nothing from being part of a larger country.
Angell’s argument works even better for social democracies, where territorial expansion or even extension of hegemony produces an unpalatable choice. If the benefits and obligations that go with citizenship welfare state are extended to those under the control of the expanded state, existing citizens will almost certainly be worse off. On the other hand, any attempt to maintain a distinction between citizens and noncitizens is bound to be highly problematic.
Angell’s argument showed, beyond reasonable doubt, that war and territorial expansion are not, in general sensible policies.. However, seeking to counteract the rising pressure for war, he argued that Germans would correctly perceive their own self-interest and would therefore not support an aggressive war. He was rapidly proved false on this point, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Nevertheless, the War confirmed his view that attempts to gain economic advantage through military power had become obsolete. Both sides suffered catastrophic losses. The attempt by the victors to recoup some of their losses through the reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles proved both fruitless and economically disastrous. Angell was right about the futility of war, but wrong in predicting that it wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, he is more remembered for being wrong than for being right.
If arguments like those of Angell are accepted, it can be seen that Merom’s thesis, and his title, need some adjustment. Rather than showing How Democracies Lose Small Wars his book could more appropriately be entitled How Democracies get out of Bad Wars.
This can be seen by looking at Merom’s two illustrative examples. The first is that of the French in Algeria. As the discussion shows, the French colonial position illustrates Angell’s arguments perfectly. In theory, Algeria was an inherent part of France, and this was certainly the view held by the million of so pieds-noirs, the French colonists who lived there. But if this claim were to be taken seriously, ten million Algerians would have had to be admitted to the full benefits of French citizenship, something that was simply not economically feasible.
As Merom observes, the limited group of businessmen and intellectuals who looked at colonial enterprise in economic terms drew the obvious conclusion that colonialism was, at best a “costly philanthropy”. Merom argues that this ‘utilitarian-rational’ position did not have much impact on French political debate, and in one sense this is probably true. On the other hand, if there had been substantial net economic benefits from colonialism, they would have made themselves felt one way or another.
The key issue that led to the collapse of the French war effort was the army’s routine reliance on torture to break the guerilla resistance of their opponents, the moujahadine of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who were themselves guilty of routine, and arguably even worse, atrocities. Protests against the brutal prosecution of the war were met with domestic repression that soon came to be seen as a threat to democracy itself, a process that was mirrored in the US a decade or so later during the Vietnam war.
Once it became clear that the French were going to pull out regardless, the FLN was able to demand a more or less unconditional acquiescence in its demands. Almost certainly, a better deal, with much more protection for the interests of the pieds noirs could have been obtained if the French government had been willing to negotiate independence before going to war. More generally, the longer the war went on, and the greater the costs to France, the worse the ultimate conclusion was bound to be.
Hence, while the outcome of the Algerian war was certainly a defeat for the French state, leading as it did to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, it can scarcely be seen as a defeat for France, considered as a democratic polity. The only sensible policy was withdrawal and pressure from society ultimately forced the state to recognise this.
The other case Merom considers in detail is that of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983, ordered by then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon. Whereas Israel’s previous wars had all been defensive (Israel attacked first in 1956 and 1967, but in both cases there was a threat of imminent invasion, perceived as real by nearly all Israelis), the invasion of Lebanon was a strategic move aimed at depriving the PLO of its base and installing, by force, a friendly government that would suppress guerilla attacks on Israel. The first objective was achieved, at least in the short run, with the PLO being forced to flee to Tunis, though the organisation was probably strengthened in the long run. The second objective, never a realistic possibility, was rapidly rendered irrelevant by the assassination of the Israeli’s preferred leader, Bashir Gemayel.
Because of the nature of the war, Israeli society was unlikely to tolerate heavy casualties as it would have done in a defensive war. This led Sharon to rely on proxies, the Phalangist militias who were the armed representatives of the Maronite Christians. When these forces, encouraged by Sharon to raid Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, committed brutal massacres, public opinion in Israel and around the world was outraged. The protests were not confined to activist groups such as Peace Now, but extended widely through Israeli society. The occupation was clearly doomed within weeks of the massacres, but it dragged on for another three years until the withdrawal to the South Lebanon buffer zone, which was not finally abandoned until 2000.
As with the French in Algeria, it is hard to see the withdrawal as a defeat for Israel as a democracy, though it was undoubtedly a defeat for the Israeli state. As Merom recognises, precisely the same analysis applies to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. As Merom says “the Palestinians are all but certain to lose military encounters with Israel, but are nevertheless likely to realize most of their political goals. Specifically, they will have an independent Palestinian state, most Jewish settlements in the territories will be dismantled, and the settlers will be repatriated. At the same time, Palestinian goals that concern Israel’s core sovereignty, particularly the demand for an Israeli recognition of the “right of return”, will not be realized.”
Merom’s analysis is obviously relevant to the current situation in Iraq, particularly as more gruesome evidence emerges from Saddam’s former prisons, now operated by the American occupiers. As in the other cases discussed above, the American public is unwilling to supply the resources that would be needed to establish effective control or to accept the casualty rates that would arise if, given current numbers, US troops attempted to operate like a police force, with direct contact with the Iraqi public, and rules of engagement that focused on minimising casualties among possibly-innocent Iraqi civilians.
The inevitable results are reliance on heavy weaponry with the associated civilian casualties, and the use of detention without trial, abusive interrogation sliding into torture, the taking of hostages and so on. The exposure of these methods inevitably eats away at domestic support for the war. Although it is still possible that the outcome in Iraq will be an improvement on what went before, the vision of a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq has long since vanished.
Under the Bush Administration, the state has gone to immense lengths to insulate itself from social pressure. But the necessity of facing the electorate remains. It seems unlikely that, by November, American society will be convinced that this was a war worth winning.