Democratic defeats

Why do democracies lose certain conflicts? By lack of democracy, replies Élie Baranets, with supporting examples.

Elie Baranets’ book, taken from a thesis in political science and international relations defended in 2015, aims to explain why democracies lose certain conflicts. It draws on the literature in political science, mainly Anglo-Saxon, concerning the relationships of States, according to their democratic or authoritarian nature, to war. Within political science, the book is situated in the field of studies of wars won by democratic regimes, which it conveniently completes by studying their defeats. His thesis is as follows: democracies suffer defeats when their political leaders do not respect the principle of deliberation and consent with regard to other democratic institutions, namely the government, parliament and the people.

Vietnam and Lebanon: challenges of a comparison

In other words, when the effective leader of the armies of a democracy bases the entry into war on an elaborate lie to obtain the approval of the counter-powers and the people, he creates a vicious cycle. This proceeds in several stages, the first of which consists of choosing a military effort that is restricted and inadequate to operational needs, which produces operational and tactical difficulties. These poor results encourage the development of protest within society and political institutions. This opposition leads the leader of the armies to make political choices further restricting military efforts, which inevitably leads to defeat.

The author bases this thesis on the so-called “most different cases” method and produces a qualitative study applied to a limited sample. It analyzes on the one hand the Vietnam War opposing on the one hand the United States and the official government of this country to a communist revolution, that is to say a “power state” and an allied regime against an insurrection on the territory of this last. He also studies the Lebanese War of 1982, pitting the State of Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon, a state isolated in its geographical environment against a terrorist group and an enemy state army on the territory of a neighboring state. The relationship to time constitutes another difference between these cases: for the United States, the Vietnam War lasted ten years (1965-1975), while in the case of Israel, the intervention in Lebanon lasted a little more than a year (June 1982-September 1983, and led to a total withdrawal of the Israeli army in 1985).

Lies at the Heart of Failure

The theoretical model developed by the author is part of the current considering that domestic political life mainly explains the course of an international event (war). This domestic policy is based on institutions where national political orientations are debated, including those relating to international conflicts. His research leads him to recognize the primacy of nature of the regime on its constitutional regime. In other words, it establishes that the violation of democratic principles of deliberation and consent, rather than the presidential model or the parliamentary model of separation of powers, explains military and strategic failure.

In this case, the United States is a presidential system, where the President and the Congress are designated by different elections and are co-dependent, in particular in deciding whether to enter the war. Conversely, Israel is a parliamentary regime, where parliament appoints a coalition government after legislative elections. According to Élie Baranets, their differences in constitutional organization do not matter: these two states lost wars when their leaders lied to launch the selected conflicts (see below), both to their government (Israel) or to their parliament (Congress in the United States and Knesset in Israel), as well as their public opinions (the two states studied).

Model the link between lying and defeat

This model is based on the postulates of the theoretical model of the rational actor, common to all democracies, whatever their institutional differences:

Democratically elected leaders seek to present their decisions as successes to the public because they want to be re-elected, which distinguishes them from autocrats for whom both physical and political survival are priorities;

Violation of democratic norms is a source of illegitimacy.

This desire to be re-elected leads to wanting to present a conflict positively by minimizing its scope, hence the deliberate choice of lying. The comparative study demonstrates that American President Lyndon B. Johnson and Minister of the Armed Forces Ariel Sharon of Menahem Begin’s government sowed the seeds of their future defeats by circumventing democratic counter-powers and abusing their public opinions.

US President Johnson lied about the extent of US military involvement in Vietnam, perpetuating a military presence dating back to his predecessors Eisenhower and Kennedy. He had Congress pass an authorization to defend American ships against those of the North Vietnamese in 1964, on which he based military deployments beyond a strict defensive mission. These were always inadequate and fueled the vicious circle defined by Élie Baranets, particularly after the Tet offensive in 1968. The American government could not decide on a massive military investment in Vietnam due to its original lie, particularly after this military victory. Communist. From then on, the public and the counter-powers opposed the conflict until it reached a critical point. This led to the American withdrawal and the victory of Ho Chi Minh’s communist government in 1975.

This defeat resonates with the vicious circle that Ariel Sharon drew in Israel in 1982. Then Minister of Defense, he took advantage of the weakness of the head of government Menahem Begin from 1981 to impose his choice of a hard conflict with the Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon and thePLO. He dragged his country into a war lasting from June 1982 to September 1985, the date of the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Rather than targeted strikes and limited operations, the choices preferred by the general staff, he imposed a large-scale operation. He justified this conflict by lying about the scale of the project within the government, to parliamentarians, in the media and even to Israel’s international partners. The IDF, the Israeli army, invaded Beirut, but failed to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon. The original lie prevented any military investment adequate to the hidden objective, restricting the troops who nevertheless achieved tactical victory after tactical victory. Ariel Sharon failed to achieve his real military objective as the conflict ultimately strengthened the Syrian presence in Lebanon. And if thePLO was affected, it was without losing its leaders that the Israeli operation targeted. Above all, the operation called “Peace and Galilee” was forever linked to the massacres of the Sabra and Chalila camps.

These two defeats took place in contexts of massive popular opposition mobilizations, in Israel as in the United States. The study also reveals the tendency of members of institutional counter-powers (American senators, members of the Israeli government or parliament) to claim to be duped in order to accumulate political gains. Once it is clear that the conflict is lost, they set themselves up as slayers of the leader responsible for these failures.

The work sheds light on a crucial issue in our democratic societies based on comparative political research between two democracies with specific international positioning and undeniable engagement in conflicts affecting the international order. It enriches our knowledge on the Vietnam War and the war in Lebanon of 1982 by combining French-speaking and English-speaking sources. By developing a parsimonious theoretical model, it makes it possible to open the comparison to other cases of democracy engaging in conflicts. Finally, by being part of a specific current in French political science, it contributes to scientific debates on the development of strategic and defense studies in France, and in particular in civil-military relations studies.

One could wonder whether the fact of having put the notion of lying in politico-military matters at the heart of the research does not risk serving as support for anti-elitist and populist discourses. Joining the notion of democratic circumvention and plausible deniability, a notion common to intelligence studies, could constitute an avenue of research to produce a color chart of the decisions taken by political leaders. Such a color chart would make it possible to avoid the systematic presumption of manipulation with regard to national strategic choices.