Dominic Johnson & Dominic Tierney: History suggests we should be careful before leaping to the conclusion that Iraq is lost

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dominic Johnson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, and Dominic Tierney, an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore, are the authors of “Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics.”]

IN January 1968, Americans turned on their televisions to find scenes of chaos and carnage as Vietnamese communists unleashed their surprise Tet offensive. It would go down in history as the greatest American battlefield defeat of the cold war.

Twenty-five years later, in December 1992, the United States began a humanitarian intervention in Somalia that would be viewed as the most striking failure of the post-cold-war era. Then, in March 2003, American tanks charged across the dunes into Iraq, beginning, in the eyes of many Americans, the worst foreign policy debacle of the post-9/11 world. Tet, Somalia and Iraq: the three great post-World War II American defeats.

Except that, remarkably, Tet and Somalia were not defeats. They were successes perceived as failures. Such stark divergence between perception and reality is common in wartime, when people’s beliefs about which side wins and which loses are often driven by psychological factors that have nothing to do with events on the battlefield. Tet and Somalia may, therefore, hold important lessons for Iraq.

The Tet offensive was an unmitigated disaster for the communists. Despite the advantages of surprise, the South Vietnamese insurgents, the Vietcong, failed to hold on to a single target in South Vietnam and suffered staggering losses. Of the 80,000 attackers, as many as half were killed in the first month alone, and the Vietcong never recovered. The United States had clearly won this round of the war.

Yet most Americans saw the Tet offensive as a failure for the United States. Approval of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the war slipped to a low of 26 percent. Before Tet, 58 percent of Americans described themselves as “hawks” who wanted to step up American military involvement in the war, while 26 percent described themselves as “doves” seeking to reduce it. Two months after Tet, doves narrowly outnumbered hawks.

How did perceptions become so detached from reality? A key factor was overblown expectations. In the months before Tet, Johnson had begun a “progress campaign” to convince Americans that victory in Vietnam was just around the corner. Reams of statistics showed that infiltration rates were down and enemy casualties were up. And it worked. Public confidence ticked upwards. But after Johnson’s bullish rhetoric, Tet looked like a disaster. The scale and surprise of the offensive sent a shock wave through the American psyche. As Johnson’s former aide, Robert Koner, later recalled, “Boom, 40 towns get attacked, and they didn’t believe us anymore.”...

Perceptions of success and failure can change the course of history. Reeling from the supposed disaster at Tet, the United States began to withdraw. Memories of “failure” in Somalia were a major reason — perhaps the major reason — that the United States did nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. If Iraq is perceived as a failure, it is only a matter of time before America pulls out, leaving who-knows-what behind. With the stakes so high, Americans must be certain that their perception of failure in Iraq is not a mirage.

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