Judging Success in War

PETER D. FEAVER – Success in war is a complex, multifaceted subject that goes beyond the battlefield.

You write in International Security that “beliefs about the likelihood of success matter most in determining the public’s willingness to tolerate U.S. military deaths in combat.” Upon launching the Iraq War in 2003, did the Bush Administration agree or understand this principle — did they have a metric against which they were planning to measure success?

I do not know whether the Bush Administration fully agreed or understood this principle at the outset of the war in 2003, but they did by 2005.  Of course, by that point, it was also clear that the war was going to be much more difficult than the Bush Administration had expected.  By 2005, the Administration did have pretty clear metrics as well as a fairly coherent strategy for achieving them (all laid out in the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq).  The problem was that the strategy did not work — it got swamped by rising sectarian violence.  Not until the President changed the strategy with the surge in early 2007 did the trajectory get reversed.

In 1999 you wrote an article asking the perennial question: “Who will guard the guardians?” As the United States has taken an increasingly international role in terms of global security operations over the last decade, in Afghanistan and then Iraq, how would you answer this question today for the US — does this country need “guardians,” or does its military power suffice to safeguard it?

The U.S. has robust and fairly healthy civil-military relations.  Of course, it can always be improved, but compared to most other contemporary powers — and especially compared to other great powers in history — the U.S. has an enviable record in how it guards the guardians.  More broadly, of course, more than military power protects U.S. interests at home and abroad.  It would be foolhardy to rely on military power alone and U.S. leaders have gone to great lengths to buttress all elements of national power, not just military.  However, a state with as diverse a set of global interests as the U.S. could not protect them without a strong military, so it is necessary but not sufficient.

There seems to be a propensity for military analysts to look at historical precedent when determining the potential efficacy of a given operation. Yet, that practice is not always good at analyzing current affairs. For two wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — that some have compared to the Vietnam conflict, should policymakers judge these conflicts in historical terms, or are they unique, requiring equally unique interpretations?

It is impossible to analyze current affairs effectively without resorting to some historical analysis.  Of course, it is foolish to mechanically apply prescriptions from one historical case to the current case, but it is also foolish to think that one can reliably understand the current case without setting it in its historical context and without comparing it to other historical cases.  Historical comparison does not always mean “this case is like that case.”  One can learn valuable insights by recognizing how “this case is NOT like that case.”

How has the war in Iraq, specifically — as it seems to have more controversy surrounding it — transformed the relationship between the civilian and military spheres, especially in relation to the “Iraq Surge” in 2007?

The Iraq case has accelerated changes in the civil-military relationships on the battlefield — the interagency deployed in theater.  In Iraq, and Afghanistan, civilians are much more integrated into battlefield operations than in previous conflicts.  Iraq has had less of a transformative impact on civil-military relations back in DC.  The civil-military lens has been vitally important for shaping Iraq, but I don’t think Iraq has been so transformative on beltway civil-military relations.  The third dimension of civil-military relations — military-to-society — is harder to assess.  It is fashionable to talk about how the Army went to war and the country went to the mall.  I think that cliche obscures more than it enlightens.  This has been a long war with an All-Volunteer Army, and that has introduced many stresses on both institutions.  But in the end, the basic societal-military relationship is much as it was in the 1990s.


PETER D. FEAVER is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University. From June 2005 to July 2007, Prof. Feaver was Special Advisor for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform on the National Security Council Staff at the White House. He also contributes to the Shadow Government blog at ForeignPolicy.com.

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