Superpowers Often Lose Small Wars to Weaker Nations

The world's most powerful nations have lost more than a third of their military battles against much weaker nations since World War II, despite the fact that their opponents were seriously outgunned and outmanned. That has caused many to wonder why powerful states lose limited wars.

Patricia Sullivan, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, began grappling with that issue several years ago while working on her doctorate at the University of California, Davis, and she thinks she has come up with at least part of the answer.

Even the most powerful states lose their appetite for war if the cost is much greater than had been expected and if guns alone won't guarantee success, she argues in a paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Her research was sponsored partly by the National Science Foundation.

Some will quarrel with Sullivan's numbers, some of which are admittedly arbitrary, but she has a worthwhile goal — to provide a working model that would allow policymakers to get a better estimate of how successful they are likely to be in a military operation. Few will find some of her conclusions reassuring.

When she ran the data on Iraq through her computer, for example, she came up with only a 26 percent chance of success, and that's if U.S. forces remain there for at least 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"My definition of success is you have to be able to leave and have the situation hold for a year," she said in an interview. That doesn't mean every American has to leave, but at least 70 percent of the forces that were there at the height of the war would be out of there. That may be an arbitrary definition of success, but at least it's better than what a lot of folks in Washington have come up with.

Sullivan has found 122 wars and military interventions since World War II in which the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain or France fought a weaker adversary. According to her research, the big guys lost 39 percent of the time. The United States walked away from 10 out of 34 military interventions.

She defines a military intervention as an operation that includes 500 battle-ready troops, which is a lower standard than the 1,000 combat deaths used in many political science studies. "It's an arbitrary number, but I wanted to include battles that are at a lower level, but not just a few advisors," Sullivan said.

Her list of failures by the United States includes the obvious — Vietnam and the earlier attempt to move into North Korea — as well as lesser skirmishes that pale in the shadow of Iraq, Lebanon in 1982-1984, Libya in 1986, several Iraq interventions after the first Gulf War, and Somalia. The United States was not defeated militarily in any of those battles, but it gave up because the cost of continuing the effort was too high.

Why the country lost is the very heart of Sullivan's research. When guns count, the major states always win. But when the end goal is to get your target to toe the line and become whatever you want, then guns no longer matter. And that's where most failures occur.

The threat of defeat, she writes in her study, "is highest when states pursue political objectives that can only be attained with target compliance," like the acceptance of a government that will remain friendly to the victor.

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