Why Isn’t There More Scholarly Evaluation of U.S. Wars? — Response

March 4, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared on International Security Studies Forum on March 4, 2016.

Security analysis in Washington, D.C. responds to political demand. The hawkish consensus reigning there limits demand for critical evaluation of U.S. defense goals, including wars. The U.S. government generally wants two other things from security analysts: legitimization of policy and help with its conduct. Those requests encourage analysts to study how best to achieve goals, not whether they are worth pursuing.9 That means asking how to prosecute wars more than whether to have them. Academic scholars encounter similar pressures to the extent that they seek influence in the capitol.

There is plenty of debate about foreign policy in Washington. But little of it questions the major arguments justifying the nation’s wars, especially those that seem likely to be cheap, like air and drone strikes. Even the 2003 Iraq War was, at the outset, relatively uncontroversial among foreign policy elites, as opposed to the public and academics.10 Pre‐​war debate and think tank analysis centered on how to go to war: the adequacy of the intelligence and international support. As the war grew unpopular, the analytic focus shifted to deficiencies in intelligence analysis, war‐​planning, counterinsurgency doctrine, rather than the theories of democratization, energy security, non‐​proliferation, and failed states justifying the war and occupation.11 Academics write about those topics, but Washington’s debates and writings mostly ignore academic work.

The Washington take‐​away from the troubled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be to tolerate less cost in support of similar goals—avoiding prolonged military occupations while still using military force to achieve revolutionary ambitions in troubled countries. For example, one seeming lesson of recent U.S. wars is that overthrowing autocrats ruling over fractious polities might unleash lasting conflict rather than stability, let alone liberal democracy. That conclusion vitiates the main rationales offered for disposing the Qaddafi and Assad regimes in Libya and Syria. Nonetheless, foreign policy elites, including scholars at major think tanks, broadly supported recent U.S. efforts to displace the Libyan and Syrian regimes, generally without engaging that counterargument.12

So what needs explanation is not non‐​evaluation of war but under‐​evaluation of war.13

My explanation has two parts, dealing with the demand and supply of analysis. The former considers how the foreign policy elites’ hawkishness suppresses debate. The supply side explains why analysts, even those at seemingly independent think tanks, rarely supply evaluation anyway. They serve the political system rather than guiding it.

The primacy cause of the limited evaluation of war is relative power, meaning the advantages in wealth, geography, and military capability that allow the United States to adopt ambitious military objectives abroad. Over time, relative power has produced bipartisan support for a grand strategy of primacy among foreign policy elites, which generates hawkish beliefs.14 Primacy, to simplify, consists of two core beliefs.15 One is that U.S. leadership is crucial to the maintenance of global order, which refers generally to peace among great powers, international commerce, and state cooperation through international organizations. A second belief is that U.S. leadership is comprised largely of military commitments—allies, overseas bases, naval patrols, and threats or acts of war. The reasoning is generally that U.S. military power deters aggression, limiting the need for states to defend themselves, preventing security dilemmas.

Primacy’s advocates see many threats. They worry about the credibility of the many promises the United States makes to defend allies. They fear proliferation of weapons technology, especially nuclear weapons. Especially in the Beltway, they tend to argue that internal conditions abroad—foreign civil wars, failed states, or illiberal government—can undermine U.S. global leadership, creating danger. This expansive view of interests and threats makes primacy conducive to war.16 It offers a grab bag of reasons to support proposed wars or military strikes and few arguments for peace.

Relative power produces support for primacy in two ways. First, over time, it distributes the human and material costs of hawkish policies, diminishing their electoral relevance. Military prowess and geography insulate most Americans from threats, allowing them to be relatively indifferent—rationally ignorant—about war’s wisdom.17 As a result, security policy tends to rank low among voters’ concerns and politicians have little incentive to cater to voters’ foreign‐​policy views. They are relatively free to adopt undemocratic stances.18

U.S. wealth creation, meanwhile, spreads the economic burden of U.S. security policies. For example, U.S. defense spending authority, adjusting for inflation, was about $614 billion in fiscal year 2014 versus $670 billion in 1952, the highest annual total of the Cold War.19 In 1952, that spending amounted to 13 percent of gross domestic product and 68 percent of federal spending. Today those percentages are 3.5 and 16.5, respectively.20 U.S. spending on the Iraq War never took more than one percent of GDP.21Drone strikes and air campaigns, like the 2011 bombing of Libya, cost tiny fractions of that.22

Thus in the material and human sense, U.S. security policy has become less burdensome, though barely cheaper. That shift means that primacy’s policies, including wars, require a smaller portion of taxes and less painful tradeoffs from other government programs. Interest groups associated with low taxes and groups defending domestic spending programs have less reason to organize opposition. Because few Americans worry about going to war, peace groups suffer. Lack of organized opposition mutes pluralistic debate among competing societal ends.

The other way relative power encourages primacy is by concentrating its benefits and generating organizations and interest groups that promote it. The exercise of global military power generated an institutional support base for continuation of those policies. This is the military‐​industrial‐​congressional‐​complex, plus various friends and clients that rely on its largesse, including some think tanks.23 As with other public policies with concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, a minority with strong and generally mutual interests rule over majority of the rationally apathetic.24

These interests typically oppose policies which are adverse to primacy—like exiting alliances. That encourages leaders, including presidents, to stick with the strategic status quo and defend it with primacy’s arguments. By creating an echo of arguments favoring primacy, these interests heighten support for it. Repetition creates both true believers and social adherents who outwardly concur for professional or social reasons.25

The consensus around primacy makes policy‐​makers in both parties generally hawkish relative to the public.26 These views convey themselves through various political incentives to think tanks. Before elaborating on those incentives, two caveats are useful.

First, incentives operate on people to differing degrees depending on their employer, ambitions and personality. Analysts may buck incentives, but their collective effect is strong. Second, these incentives do not encourage analysts to take aggressively pro‐​war stances. As the Iraq War demonstrated, being overly bellicose can have unfortunate professional consequences for analysts, at least on the left. The better course is to avoid strong anti‐​war positions and to focus on operational questions.

Understanding what think tanks produce requires understanding their main tasks: raising money and touting access to a powerful audience. Non‐​profits must raise money in order to operate. The ability to speak to policy‐​makers or a large audience allows think tanks to promise results, which keeps up morale and aids fundraising.

Raising money requires pleasing funders and thus doing what many of them want. People, including those running foundations or grant‐​making arms of government agencies, fund think‐​tanks for two main reasons. One is to get a particular question answered. The other reason, probably more common, is to influence politics—to promote some change.

Access to policy‐​makers means responding to their wants, as well. In theory, that can be three things. The first is help with preference formation or goal setting, where think tank analysts are like salespeople in a free marketplace of ideas. Policy‐​makers also want help with preference implementation. That can be operational support, where outside experts help turn general goals into policy programs or evaluate alternative means to an end. It can also mean marketing, where experts’ endorsement heightens support.

There are several reasons why policy‐​makers want help less with policy formation than policy‐​implementation, especially the sales element. First, other politicians, pollsters, political consultants, staff, interest groups and parties already compete for the policy guidance role. Second, office‐​holders often lack the time required to investigate intellectual alternatives. Third, the diffusion of power in the U.S. political system creates status quo bias, which makes opportunities for big changes rare. And the difficulty of change forces leaders to constantly sell their policy preferences to others.27 Expert support gives policies a sheen of scientific legitimacy.

One U.S. Senator described this legitimization function this way: “you can find a think tank to buttress any view or position, and then you can give it the aura of legitimacy and credibility by referring to their report.“28 Rory Stewart, an expert on Afghanistan who opposed the 2009 surge, describes how this dynamic played out in his consultation with Obama administration officials planning the surge:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, “I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?” And you say, “I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.” And they say, “No, no, that bit’s already been decided—the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.” And you say, “Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.” And then they say, “We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says…“29

The need to please funders and possibly political leaders makes think tanks a part of the politics they analyze. There is nothing wrong with that besides violation of the polite fiction that think tanks are totally non‐​political. But think tanks’ competitive advantage is their balance of subordination to a political agenda and retention of independent expertise. Lobbyists have expertise, but it is worth little as an endorsement because everyone knows it is bought. Academics may be more impressive scholars, but they’re less attuned to and interested in what political leaders want. If think tanks ignored what their sponsors wanted and had no predictable politics, they would cease to raise money.

These general observations about think tanks point to three pressures, active to varying extent in different think tanks, which encourage analysts to avoid controversial questions about war. The first is funding. Some think tanks rely almost entirely on U.S. government funds, some on major defense contractors. Some analysts are even consultants to defense contractors.

Funders are unlikely to demand particular answers. But they bind analysts’ output by controlling what questions they answer. And for the reason discussed above, their questions are unlikely to challenge Washington’s hawkish consensus. Aggressive questioning of war goals, even outside of sponsored research, is unlikely to draw immediate consequences. But it might affect future funding. Foundation grants also create pressures to avoid certain arguments.

Professional ambition is a second cause of analytic restraint. Because most think tank analysts want top government jobs at some point, they have reason to avoid offending the dominant foreign policy views of their party. That creates pressure to avoid excessive criticism of recent war aims, which, as noted, tend to have bipartisan support. For example, ambitious Democratic analysts, now preparing themselves for the Hillary Clinton administration, will avoid dovish criticism of the wars in Libya and Syria.

A third cause is socialization. The dominance of primacy and hawkishness among foreign policy elites creates social pressure to conform. Analysts may avoid criticizing U.S. war goals to avoid the social discomfort of being at odds with their peers and seen to hold irrelevant views. Even Leslie Gelb, as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was not immune to such pressures. He attributed his support for the Iraq War, which he’d come to regret, to “unfortunate tendencies within the [Washington] foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.“30

If academics seek grants, appointments, and access at Washington’s foreign policy institutions, they confront some of the incentives think tank analysts do.31 Still, the academy’s professional incentives leave its scholars less susceptible than think tank analysts to these pressures. Tenure protects those who have it and see little to gain from official favor. And by rewarding novel theory and bold conclusions, political science creates incentive to find flaws in key theories underlying popular foreign policies and grand strategies.

One conclusion is that scholars should provide the war evaluation that think tanks avoid. But policy‐​makers will pay little attention to this analysis—not because it is esoteric but because it will not help them. Another road to relevance is to influence public beliefs in ways that eventually constrain Washington. Academia should reward that brand of relevance but understand that it often means being a naysayer that officialdom ignores or attacks.

Another conclusion is that debate about war would improve with greater dissent among political elites—broader competition among parties, organizations, interest groups and beyond. If elites demanded tougher evaluation of wars, aligned think tanks would provide them. That seems unlikely now, because the conditions – U.S. wealth and power— that encouraged primacy and its hawkish outputs appear durable.32

Under‐​evaluation of war is likely to remain a problem for U.S. democracy. It seems that a cost‐​bearing public and the separation of power do little to encourage intelligent war policy, at least where costs are low for most voters.33 Because the United States is relatively rich, safe and powerful, many wars are possible and few will seem costly. That is a recipe for having continual, ill‐​considered wars.

9 The argument here comes largely from a co‐​authored paper discussing why there is so little evaluation of grand strategy in Washington. Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan, “The Operational Mindset: Why Washington Doesn’t Debate Grand Strategy,” paper under submission.

10 On elites, see Adam J. Berinsky, “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict,” Journal of Politics 69:4, (2007): 975–97. On academics, see Daniel Maliniak et al, “The View from the Ivory Tower: TRIP Survey of International Relations Faculty in the United States and Canada,” February 2007,https://​www​.wm​.edu/​o​f​f​i​c​e​s​/​i​t​p​i​r​/​_​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​t​r​i​p​/​i​v​o​r​y​_​t​o​w​e​r​_​v​i​e​w​_​2​0​0​7.pdf.

11 Benjamin H. Friedman, Harvey M. Sapolsky and Christopher Preble, “Learning the Right Lessons From Iraq,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis 610, (February 2008).

12 See, for example, Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis, “NATO’s Victory in Libya: The Right Way to Run an Intervention,” Foreign Affairs 91/2 (2012): 2–7; Anne‐​Marie Slaughter, “Why Libya Skeptics Were Proved Badly Wrong,” Financial Times, August 24, 2011; and Anne‐​Marie Slaughter, “Syrian Intervention is Justifiable, and Just,” Washington Post, June 8, 2012.

13 On non‐​evaluation, see Stephen Van Evera, “Why States Believe Foolish Ideas,” in Andrew K. Hanami, ed., Perspectives on Structural Realism (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 163–198.

14 I develop this argument in Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan, “Why the U.S. Military Budget is Foolish and Sustainable,” Orbis 56/ 2 (2012); and Benjamin H. Friedman “Alarums and Excursions: Explaining Threat Inflation in U.S. Foreign Policy,” in Christopher A. Preble and John Mueller, eds., A Dangerous World? Threat Perception in U.S. National Security (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2014), 281–303.

15 Another term that applies here is “liberal hegemony,” a label for the updated version of primacy critiqued in Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell University Press, 2014). A recent article making the case for primacy calls it “deep engagement.” Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment,” International Security 37/ 3 (2012/13): 7–51.

16 On how unipolarity encourages war, see Nuno Monterio, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful,” International Security 36/3 (Winter 2011/12): 9–40.

17 Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).

18 Joshua Busby and Jonathan Monten, “Republican Elites and Foreign Policy Attitudes,” Political Science Quarterly 12:1 (2012):105–142.

19 National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2016, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), March 2015, http://​comp​trol​ler​.defense​.gov/​P​o​r​t​a​l​s​/​4​5​/​D​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​d​e​f​b​u​d​g​e​t​/​f​y​2​0​16/FY…, pp. 140–146. Measured in outlays, U.S. defense spending is higher now than at any time during the Cold War.

20 Ibid., 264–266.

21 On the Iraq War direct costs, see Amy Belasco, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” Congressional Research Service, December 8, 2014.

22 The United States spent $1–2 billion on the Libya campaign in 2011. Kevin Baron, “For the U.S., War against Qaddafi Cost Relatively Little: $1.1 Billion,” The Atlantic, October 21, 2001,http://​www​.the​at​lantic​.com/​i​n​t​e​r​n​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​2​0​1​1​/​1​0​/​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​u​s​-​w​a​r​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​q​a​d​d​a​f​i​-​c​o​s​t​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​v​e​l​y​-​l​i​t​t​l​e​-​1​1​-​b​i​l​l​i​o​n​/​2​4​7133/.

23 Richard K. Betts, “The Political Support System for American Primacy,” International Affairs 81, no. 1 (January 2005): 1–14.

24 Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 124–51.

25 This is a softer version of the “preference falsification” that occurs in autocracies according to Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997).

26 On this gap, see, e.g., Marshall M. Bouton and Benjamin J. Page, The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). A recent demonstration of the gap is Dina Smeltz et al, United in Goals, Divided on Means: Opinion Leaders Survey Results and Partisan Breakdowns from the 2014 Chicago Survey of American Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy (Chicago: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2015).

27 Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism, 40th Anniversary Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).

28 Senator Olympia Snowe quoted in Ezra Klein, “Unpopular Mandate: Why Do Politicians Reverse Their Positions?” New Yorker, June 25, 2012.

29 Emily Stokes, “Lunch with the FT: Rory Stewart,” Financial Times, August 1, 2009.

30 Leslie H. Gelb with Jeanne‐​Paloma Zelmati, “Mission Unaccomplished,” Democracy, no. 13 (Summer 2009), 24. Another example showing the confluence of several these pressures is RAND’s research on the Vietnam War. Mai Elliott, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era(Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

31 Hans J. Morgenthau, “The Purpose of Political Science,” in James Clyde Charlesworth, A Design for Political Science: Scope, Objectives, and Methods (Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 1966): 63–79.

32 Friedman and Logan. For a more recent and optimistic take relying on recent public opinion trends, see Michael C. Desch, “How Popular is Peace,” The American Conservative, October 21, 2015,http://​www​.theam​er​i​can​con​ser​v​a​tive​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​h​o​w​-​p​o​p​u​l​a​r​-​i​s​-​p​eace/,

33 For more carefully‐​developed skepticism about U.S. intelligence in making war, see John M. Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015). See also, A. Trevor Thrall, A Bear in the Woods? Threat Framing and the Marketplace of Values, Security Studies 16:3 (2007): 452–488.

34 The causes and consequences of such biases are discussed in Robert Jervis, “Hypotheses on Misperception,” World Politics, Vol. 20, No. 3 (April 1968): 454–79.

35 Richard K. Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2000): 5–50.

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