Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Wars Are Easy to Start and Hard to End

| Aug. 29, 2022

Misperception, sunk costs, escalation, and internationalization all make conflicts last longer than planned.

I've written several columns on important foreign-policy ideas that national leaders forget at their peril, such as the balance of powernationalism, and the security dilemma. This week, I'm offering up another one, a simple observation that every world leader or foreign-policy advisor ought to have prominently displayed on their desk, on their office wall, or maybe just tattooed on the inside of their eyelids so they don't ever, ever forget it: "It's much easier to start a war than to end it."

Illustrations of this phenomenon are ubiquitous. As Geoffrey Blainey described in his classic book The Causes of War, many past conflicts were fueled by "dreams and delusions of a coming war," and especially the belief that it would be quick, it would be cheap, and it would yield a decisive victory. In 1792, for example, the armies of Austria-Hungary, Prussia, and France all rushed to the battlefield believing the war would be resolved after a battle or two. The French radicals thought their recent revolution would quickly spread to others, and the opposing monarchies believed the revolutionary armies were an incompetent rabble that their professional soldiers would easily sweep aside. What they got instead was nearly a quarter-century of recurring warfare that dragged in all the major powers and spread around the globe.

Similarly, in August 1914, the nations of Europe marched off to war saying the soldiers would be home by Christmas, blissfully unaware that the anticipated Christmas homecoming wouldn't take place until 1918. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein succumbed to much the same illusion in 1980, believing that the 1979 revolution had left Iran vulnerable to an Iraqi attack. The resulting war lasted eight years, and the two states suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths and vast economic damage before calling it quits.

Even highly successful military campaigns often lead not to quick victories but to interminable quagmires. The 1967 Six-Day War lasted less than a week, but it resolved none of the underlying political issues between Israel and its neighbors and merely set the stage for the more costly War of Attrition (1969-1970) and the October War in 1973. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a near-total success militarily, but the resulting occupation of southern Lebanon lasted 18 years, cost hundreds of lives, led to the creation of Hezbollah, and laid the groundwork for several even more costly clashes. One would be hard-pressed to find a more successful military operation than Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but Saddam managed to cling to power after his army was ousted from Kuwait, and the United States ended up patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq and conducting occasional aerial attacks for another decade.

The United States’ initial successes in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 proved to be wholly illusory. Instead of “Mission Accomplished,” as then-U.S. President George W. Bush infamously proclaimed prematurely aboard an aircraft carrier less than two months after invading Iraq, in both cases what lay ahead was a costly and ultimately unsuccessful war against surprisingly resilient and effective insurgencies. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman should have pondered that experience before launching his own ill-advised war against the Houthis in Yemen....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Wars Are Easy to Start and Hard to End.” Foreign Policy, August 29, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt