There are no “do-overs” in long wars

Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage.  Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage. 

Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How do long wars become so long?" in The New Republic. TNR dropped off my "must-read" list a long time ago, but Sestanovich's piece is excellent and well worth a look. He argues that many "long wars" begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren't going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven't given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide. 

Thus, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who also served as U.S. Ambassador in South Vietnam, explained the decision to escalate in 1965 by saying "we had not exhausted our alternatives." In his view, the United States still had "vast resources" to bring to bear -- and new strategies to try -- "before we thought of quitting."

Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage. 

Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How do long wars become so long?" in The New Republic. TNR dropped off my "must-read" list a long time ago, but Sestanovich’s piece is excellent and well worth a look. He argues that many "long wars" begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren’t going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven’t given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide. 

Thus, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who also served as U.S. Ambassador in South Vietnam, explained the decision to escalate in 1965 by saying "we had not exhausted our alternatives." In his view, the United States still had "vast resources" to bring to bear — and new strategies to try — "before we thought of quitting."

This problem was the sixth point in my list of ten reasons, but Sestanovich offers an important amendment in his own piece. By the time the U.S. gets serious about these local conflicts, the situation has often deteriorated so badly that even a major effort may not succeed, or at least not quickly. But while the public will let them take "their best shot," it will expect that shot to succeed in fairly short order. Thus, presidents do not get an infinite number of "do-overs." Even if the military keeps coming up with clever new strategies, the public won’t support a lengthy campaign that isn’t producing visible and positive results.

The obvious implication is that Obama and General Petraeus have a few more months to show tangible results of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And if I were them, I’d be thinking about a Plan B. I’ll have more to say on that point tomorrow.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.