Planning to Fail: The US Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan

  • Published

Planning to Fail: The US Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan by James H. Lebovic. Oxford University Press, 2019, 315 pp.

The recent collapse of the Afghan National Army and subsequent flight of US personnel from Kabul signifies the frustrating end to a once popular, even honorable, endeavor. The ensuing media firestorm over American blunders in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East articulated many compelling points, but a deeper analysis is needed to fully comprehend the essence of this tragedy. Fortunately, professor and author James Lebovic provides that with his new book Planning to Fail: The U.S. Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The author convincingly demonstrates the hidden biases and nonrational tendencies that hinder American policy makers from making pragmatic decisions.

Lebovic is uniquely well-equipped to write on the subject. In addition to teaching political science and international affairs at The George Washington University, the author served as chair of the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association for several years. He is also the author of five additional books on national security topics.

His most recent contribution, Planning to Fail, is ambitious in scope, addressing three conflicts¾Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan¾now ingrained in the American psyche due to their complexity, duration, and disappointing results. This book is not the only one to draw on these conflicts to better understand national security pitfalls. Donald Stoker’s Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present and Brendan Gallagher’s The Day After: Why America Wins the War but Loses the Peace also reflect on the failures of recent US endeavors. Planning to Fail is unique, though, for its focus on decision-making theories and synthesis of lessons for future policymakers.

Lebovic’s overarching thesis is succinct: policy makers are myopic. Instead of carefully considering long-term policy goals, governmental actors succumb to the tyranny of the urgent. Lebovic establishes four stages of decision-making found in all three conflicts to support his thesis.

Stage I includes the planning and initial commitment of military forces. This initial commitment is then extended and expanded in Stage II. Eventually, policy makers reach their limit and restrict the flow of resources in Stage III. By Stage IV, withdrawing from the conflict has become the objective. Lebovic argues that in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, nonrational influences dominated the four-stage process, resulting in shortsighted policy.

The bulk of the book, contained in three chapters, is dedicated to a detailed analysis of each conflict. Lebovic methodically constructs his arguments through these case studies. The author’s careful consideration and ultimate refutation of opposing viewpoints is a testament to his thoroughness, and his dispassionate and impartial approach to politically or emotionally charged topics and individuals was refreshingly professional. The choice of the conflicts themselves was also wise; the four stages of wartime decision-making were readily apparent in each, strengthening the intellectual framework through which to consider the arguments. In sum, the author’s meticulous and unbiased approach lends a credibility not easily found in other works.

Lebovic addresses the Vietnam War first, and in doing so presents perhaps his strongest arguments on nonrational decision-making. One by one, he debunks common misconceptions, showing that the Johnson administration had every chance to stop involvement but willingly¾and unwisely¾chose to stay the course. The author claims that “what makes rationality suspect here is, not what option the administration selected but how it selected it.” The arguments between Johnson and his advisors always centered on how many troops to send or how many targets to bomb, with little consideration for how these efforts helped achieve end goals.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts present unique challenges to a researcher due to their recency, but Lebovic’s efforts are nonetheless credible. Undue optimism and an aversion to nation-building within the Bush administration handicapped early efforts. Later, both the Bush and Obama administrations placed excessive focus on troop levels and departure timelines, clouding strategic thinking and limiting available options.

Here it becomes painfully obvious that political leaders could have avoided the four stages of wartime decision-making “by pursuing goals that suited US capabilities or avoiding no-win wars in the first place,” but they chose not to. Lebovic thus shows that the condition of myopic bias at the highest levels of government remains a painful issue into the twenty-first century.

There are, however, modern conflicts indicating some level of foresight and restraint in American leadership. US operations in Somalia, for example, were abbreviated in 1993 after the bloody Battle of Mogadishu. The NATO air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, spearheaded by the United States, also remained limited and intentional.

The most famous example is undoubtedly the first Gulf War, when coalition forces liberated Kuwait and battered Saddam Hussein’s military without succumbing to mission creep. Lebovic does not necessarily discount these examples¾the first Gulf War is mentioned briefly¾but a thorough analysis of these conflicts might reveal compelling instances of government actors overcoming myopic biases.

This is not to say that Lebovic fails to provide policy prescriptions. On the contrary, the final chapter is dedicated to learning from the failures chronicled throughout the book. Here, Lebovic is at his best. “War is always a matter of choice,” he claims, and US interests “always reduce to matters of quantity, not fundamental quality.”

The fact that each policy maker examined here resisted questioning and debate, instead moving quickly or unthinkingly toward action, reveals the dangerous pull and ultimate consequences of myopic bias. Fortunately, Lebovic leaves readers with lessons to be learned from each of the four stages of decision-making. He also provides eight additional lessons for policy makers to help mitigate the effects of bias.

Planning to Fail remains an excellent critique of US decision-making in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Lebovic’s contribution to the debate is sorely needed, not only for the criticism it offers but also the guidance it gives to present and future national security leaders. Recent events show that the dangers of myopic biases did not end with Vietnam. Sadly, unless more attention is paid to the lessons presented by Lebovic, they likely will not end with Afghanistan either.

Second Lieutenant Mark Schell, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."