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Iraq War Destined to Be Judged Failure, Win or Lose, Author Says

For Immediate Release: October 31, 2006
Contact: Alisa Giardinelli
(610) 690-5717


Iraq War Destined to be Judged a Failure,
Whether U.S. Wins or Loses,
Predicts Swarthmore College Political Scientist

Americans will likely judge the war in Iraq as a failure, even if the insurgency is quelled and a fairly stable Iraqi government is in place, says Dominic Tierney, a political science professor at Swarthmore College.  Once the goals of the war shifted from regime-change to nation-building, Tierney, co-author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), says the American public increasingly saw the U.S. role in it as a lost cause.

Tierney and co-author Dominic Johnson of Princeton University explore why popular judgments of success and failure in wars and crises often diverge widely from the reality on the ground.  Powerful psychological factors, they say, can skew people's perceptions of the winners and losers.

In the book, they examine several 20th-century conflicts.  For example, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 ended in a draw, but around the world it was viewed as a stunning triumph for President Kennedy.  In contrast, the Tet Offensive of 1968 in the Vietnam War was a stunning triumph for the United States, but many Americans perceived it as a disaster.  In 1993, the U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia saved the lives of over 100,000 Somalis at a cost of 43 American troops, but it was widely seen as one of the worst foreign policy failures since Vietnam.

One might think that American perceptions of failure in Iraq simply reflect the very real problems on the ground.  "But that might not necessarily be true," says Tierney, who is British. "Americans are predisposed to judge nation-building missions as failures, regardless of whether they are going badly, as with Iraq today, or going well, as with recent interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.  When the Iraq war became a nation-building operation, confidence took a nosedive."

One reason for this skepticism about nation-building, Tierney says, is that memories of the Vietnam War lurk at the back of American minds.  "When they see conflict that resembles Vietnam," Tierney maintains, "confidence starts to plummet." Another reason has to do with media presentation.  "In nation-building missions, the fact that electricity production is up or unemployment is down is rarely reported, but dramatic events like bombings are front-page news," he says.  "Relatively stable areas in Iraq, such as the Kurdish region, are largely ignored in the media.  It's easy to turn on CNN, see that 10 Iraqis died, and get the impression that the whole country is lawless and the insurgency is dominant."

But the most subtle and interesting reason, in his opinion, relates to American values and ideas about democracy.  "Americans judge the success of nation-building relative to their own standards of democracy and stability instead of looking at how much progress has been made since U.S. forces arrived," Tierney says. "So a situation is judged as a failure for falling short of U.S. democratic standards, even if the country involved never had a democratic system and was incredibly unstable and poverty-ridden to begin with."

 American presidents play into these inflated expectations, he says, by using "grandiose rhetoric" to mobilize support for a war, promising to transform the target society.  When the outcome inevitably falls short of the president's words, the public turns against the effort.  "But success at nation-building is often a slow, patient process involving incremental change," Tierney says.

The result of all this?  "Win or lose in Iraq," as Tierney puts it, "America will be seen to lose."

Tierney completed his Ph.D. in international politics at Oxford University in 2003.  He came to Swarthmore last year after teaching at Ohio State University and Harvard University's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.  He is also the author of FDR and the Last Great Cause: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Spanish Civil War (Duke University Press, 2007).


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