Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thoughts on Failing to Win

As some of you may know, when I first published my views on the Winograd preliminary report on the Israel Political Science Association email list, commission member Yehezkel Dror responded to the whole list by recommending three books on evaluating war results. These are, for those of you who want to do your homework:

1. Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 2006.

2. Robert Mandel, The Meaning of Military Victory. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

3. William C. Martel, Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

I have now read Johnson and Tierney, Failing to Win (I will get to the others eventually, insh'allah).

This is a good book, which examines 4 cases (The Cuban missile crisis, Tet, the Yom Kippur War, Somalia '92-93, and The War on Terror/War in Iraq) where perceptions of victory differ markedly from what a neutral observer "keeping score" might expect. For example, Tet was in military terms a massive defeat for the Viet Cong, which was more or less destroyed as an organization, and for North Vietnam. But the magnitude of the offensive transformed American elite and popular opinion from supportive of the US war in Vietnam to skeptical. Most importantly, Johnson and Tierney show that democracies tend to be biased against themselves in assessing who won or lost.

From reading this book one can learn a lot about why it would be difficult for the Israeli public to get an accurate view of the battlefield results and political/diplomatic consequences of the second Lebanon war.

But the Winograd commission was not appointed to explain why Israelis think the war was a failure. Presumably, the public knows what it thinks. The commission was appointed to examine whether it was a failure, and if so, which decision-makers and/or rooted institutional habits were responsible.

I often see references to the Winograd commission as an expert commission, which it certainly is. Its members include two major generals, a distinguished retired judge, and two first-rate academics, a public administration scholar and a jurisprude. But it has no former cabinet members, no diplomats, no intelligence experts, and no academics from Middle East Studies or international relations, the professions most relevant to inquiring into the actual consequences of the war.

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