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Book review: 'Failing to Win': In world politics, when is a loss a win?

Carlin Romano
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory
and Defeat in International Politics

by Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney
Harvard University Press ($35)

Winning isn't the only thing, as the old Vince Lombardi line holds. It's not even a clear thing - at least in international affairs.

Most people think JFK KO'd Nikita Khrushchev in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy slapped a quarantine on Cuba after discovering nuclear missiles there and demanded that they be removed. Khrushchev complied.

A no-brainer, right? Wrong, say Princeton's Dominic D.P. Johnson and Swarthmore's Dominic Tierney, who draw on historical, psychological and political research to claim that what we took from that crisis doesn't fit the actual score of achieved aims and material gains.

We learned only later, they explain, that Kennedy secretly and simultaneously agreed to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey, a prime Soviet demand. We also overlook Khrushchev's extraction of a pledge from Kennedy not to invade Cuba, another longtime Soviet aim, to which American policy has adhered since.

Khrushchev later claimed "that the preservation of Cuba had cost only the equivalent of the round-trip expenses for the missiles and troops." Yet the world, including the Soviet leader's Kremlin comrades, saw the event as a clear-cut Kennedy win. Within two years, the Politburo fired Khrushchev.

"Sometimes perceptions and reality match," the authors write, "sometimes they do not." That suggests the complexity and importance of Johnson and Tierney's own goal to make "Who really won?" a key question at the heart of international politics and political history.

Consider some of their other examples. Johnson and Tierney ask readers to compare "the 1975 Mayaguez incident, in which 41 American died," with "the 1992-1994 U.S. intervention in Somalia, in which 43 Americans died."

The Mayaguez incident began in May 1975, when the Cambodians seized the U.S. merchant ship by that name and its 39 crew members. The Khmer Rouge quickly transferred the Americans from the island of Koh Tang. But President Gerald Ford had ordered the Marines to rescue the crew by attacking Koh Tang. The Marines who landed encountered no crew - only elite Khmer Rouge troops.

"When the dust settled on Koh Tang," Johnson and Tierney write, "41 U.S. soldiers had been killed, dozens more had been wounded. ... Three U.S. soldiers were left behind by accident, captured and executed."

Johnson and Tierney note that the United States also bombed the Cambodian mainland, but "it is unclear what role, if any, U.S. military action played in the Cambodians' decision to free the crew: the men were released before the bombing began."

"Overall," the authors conclude, "this was a bungled operation, based on poor intelligence, in which more U.S. servicemen died than there were hostages to be rescued." And yet, remarkably in their view, "most Americans perceived the episode to have been a striking success: in one poll, 79 percent of the public rated Ford's handling of the incident positively." By contrast, they say, the 1992-94 U.S. intervention in Somalia, in which military forces were sent "to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia," is "usually judged as an unmitigated failure."

Yet Operation Restore Hope, they point out, is "widely acknowledged to have saved the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of Somalis."

What most people remember, they note regretfully, is "the infamous 'Black Hawk Down' battle in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in early October 1993, in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed." Although that battle, which took place during the Clinton administration, resulted in U.S. forces' "killing perhaps fifty opponents for every loss of their own," the images of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets left a deep impression on both the U.S. public and the White House. A poll soon afterward found that only 25 percent of Americans considered the intervention in Somalia successful.

Because the Somalia operation came to be viewed as, the authors assert, "the greatest U.S. failure since Vietnam," the Clinton administration declined to intervene half a year later in Rwanda, thus arguably permitting a genocide of about 800,000 people to proceed without interference.

``Failing to Win'' seeks to place such dilemmas of international politics at the top of policy agendas while also making the effort to understand them "an exciting new area for research."

That accounts for the uneven division of the book. After its introduction, and for much of its first third, ``Failing to Win'' reads like what academics call a "tenure book." It sets out, in arid prose, an abstract schema for analyzing global conflicts.

Winners and losers in international politics, the authors explain, are determined by two theoretical frameworks they dub "Score- keeping" and "Match-fixing," which combine in different measures in real cases.

"Score-keeping" assesses actual battlefield achievements, the realization of material gains and original strategic aims. "Match-fixing" alters perceptions by the application of "mind-sets, salient events, and social pressures," fleshed out elsewhere as "pre-existing beliefs, the symbolism of events, and manipulation by elites and the media."

Chapter 5, however, begins five solid sections in which Johnson and Tierney analyze, in great detail, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Tet Offensive (a U.S. victory, they say, that went down as a defeat), the Yom Kippur War (an Israeli victory, they say, misunderstood as a defeat), the U.S. intervention in Somalia, and the current "war against terror" (a mixed picture in their view.)

In those chapters, Johnson and Tierney provide a huge public service by showing how perceptions of victory depend on such factors as divergent assumptions about goals, and about "before" and "after" points by which to judge progress.

By the end, Johnson and Tierney highlight patterns worth noting as Americans head to the polls. One is that if "leaders want to stay in office, it is imperative that they be seen to win." Another is that if Americans think a war is a lost cause, it becomes one.

Is a Shiite-heavy Iraqi government that connives at murder and ethnic cleansing of Sunnis worth another American life? How about the same government - add "Sunni-light and Saddamist-infiltrated" - that connives at murder and ethnic cleansing of Shiites?

Johnson and Tierney don't take partisan stands on where Iraq policy should head. But they make plain a truism detected across many generations, capsulized in Gen. George Patton's remark that "the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans."

Americans will bear casualties if they think a war's worth fighting, and capable of being won, but not if it's not.

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