Merom review

In response to a couple of requests, I’ve belatedly posted the published version of my review of Gil Merom How Democracies Lose Small Wars. Feel free to post your own thoughts.

Review of Merom: How Democracies Lose Small Wars
The question of how a democracy can respond to insurgency without betraying its own values has been pushed to the forefront of attention by recent developments in Iraq. To respond, it is necessary to reconsider the whole idea of war as a policy instrument for democratic states.

In How Democracies Lose Small Wars, 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. However, his analysis could usefully have been pushed even further.

The analysis begins with the standard realist idea, going back to Clausewitz 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. But whereas Clausewitz, observing the success of the French revolutionary armies, emphasises the power to be derived from mobilising society in support of the state and the military, Merom focuses on the way in which, in liberal democratic polities, society constrains the state, and makes the assertion of military power problematic, even against weak opponents.

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.

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.

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 typically required if a war effort is to be maintained over a long period in the absence of an obvious and direct threat to the nation. Attempts to suppress dissent raise the stakes, converting relatively obscure foreign policy issues into domestic political crises.

Merom defines “small wars” with reference to the translation of the Spanish term “guerilla”, and focus on the asymmetric and popular nature of such wars and the resulting reliance of the weaker side on guerilla tactics. However, the smallness or otherwise of wars may also be considered in quantitative terms. Merom’s 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 on a comparable scale, relative to the military-age population.

The reason for the upper bound is obvious enough. A war on a larger scale than this requires a major national war effort. Such an effort will not, in general, maintain popular support as a response to an insurgency outside the (metropolitan) boundaries of the state, particularly if it is in a far distant colony or dependency.

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.

What used to be called the Powell doctrine is relevant here. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell argued that military action should be used only as a last resort; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged. Very small wars can generally be managed in a way that meets these criteria. By contrast, the Iraq war has been planned and executed on the basis of assumptions directly opposed to this doctrine.

The key analytical point made by Merom can be developed in the light of this contrast. The reason that states in democratic polities lose small wars is that the military resistance of the other side is sufficient to require either acceptance of casualties 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 South West 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 these examples also illustrate the limitations of brutality as a method. In most of these cases, popular resistance continued despite brutal suppression, imposing substantial costs on the conquerors. In none of them could it be said with any certainty that the benefits of conquest exceeded the costs, and in several it is clear that the opposite is true.

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 modern economy 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. His views have often been derided on the basis that they were falsified by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, which was pursued to the bitter end even though it destroyed the global market economy that had formed the backdrop to his analysis. But in reality the outcome proved him right. Of course, Germany, the power most influenced by the arguments of Clausewitz and his successors, reaped nothing but grief from the war. But the attempts of the victorious allies to exact reparations, extend their colonial influence and so on were also entirely futile, exactly as Angell had predicted.

If arguments like those of Angell are accepted, it can be seen that Merom’s thesis needs to be pushed further. The fact that democracies tend to abandon wars where autocracies would persevere is a strength rather than a weakness. The costs of war nearly always exceed the benefits, even for the victors. But in a dictatorial or oligarchical society, the costs are borne by the people at large, while rulers can capture loot and glory. Where society is ultimately dominant over the state and the military, this reality is faced more readily, and wars are abandoned more quickly. Rather than showing How Democracies Lose Small Wars his book could more appropriately be entitled How Democracies get out of Bad Wars.

The process is illustrated by the two examples treated by Merom in admirable depth. 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. 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 cause of Palestinian nationalism 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, or a response to an imminent threat such as the 1967 war. This led Sharon to rely heavily on air power and artillery, methods that reduce the risk of casualties for the more advanced power, while virtually guaranteeing heavy civilian casualties. The crucial result though was the decision to leave much of the ground fighting to 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 and, even more for the Israeli military. 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.

Merom, Gil (2003) How Democracies Lose Small Wars, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

2 thoughts on “Merom review

  1. JQ wrote:
    “It seems unlikely that, by November, American society will be convinced that this was a war worth winning.”
    John, there is either a war going on between Islamofascism and the West or there is not. It is not a question of how big or small the war is.
    If the Islamofascists keep on fighting against the US ( Europe has already thrown in the towel, with the exception of the UK and “New Europe”)they will have to inflict some damage, at least as great as 9/11 to stay in the “war”. If they do, all the concepts in Merom tome go out the window, and the Islamofascists will see the ugly side of the West including nuclear war.
    My estimate… 10 to 15% of the umma will be visiting their 72 year old virgin, about 140 million casualties on their side, and 1 million on ours.
    I just hope I’m wrong, but nothing in the last 3 years, since I formed that view, has changed my mind.

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