Presidents Fighting the Last War?: Sunk Costs, Traumatic Lessons, and Anticipated Regret in Vietnam’s “Shadow”
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Existing security studies literature focuses on causes of war onset and conditions for war termination. Yet presidents regularly face major inflexion points where they must make a major war policy change, whether to deescalate, escalate, or conduct a hybrid approach. These decision points come after significant sunk costs, including lives lost, treasure invested, and political/diplomatic capital spent. The gap in research on mid-conflict policy adaptations, and on theoretical frameworks to explain them, presents an empirical puzzle that is the subject of this dissertation.
This dissertation further scopes that topic, answering the following question. Why did presidents in the “shadow” of the Vietnam War make major war policy changes to cut losses and bring troops home, or to double down? To answer that question, this dissertation conducts a structured, focused comparison of four case studies: Lebanon (1984), Somalia (1993), Iraq (2007), and Afghanistan (2009). It is structured in that it uses the same questions to uncover presidents’ rationale across each case. It is focused in that it orients each case on a specific presidential “sunk cost trap” decision. It uses a variety of primary and secondary material, including archival research and new, senior level interviews with former administration officials and military generals.
This dissertation finds that historical “lessons” act as a filter for strategic calculations among policy elite, ultimately influencing decision outcomes. Between the Vietnam War and 9/11, the Vietnam lesson to avoid quagmires by treating sunk costs as sunk and avoiding incremental escalation was dominant. The fear, or anticipated regret, of their own “Vietnam” created deescalatory pressures on presidents, demonstrated in the exits from Lebanon (1984) and Somalia (1993-1994). After 9/11, the logic flipped due to new lessons learned, including the need for proactive counterterrorism overseas and counterinsurgency strategies. This created escalatory pressures in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009) because of presidents’ desire to avoid another “9/11” on their watch.
Historical Lessons and Sunk Cost Traps
Presidential Decision Making
U.S. National Security Policy
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