#Reviewing Success and Failure in Limited War

A Response to Dixon

Editor’s Note: The following article is the author’s response to the review published on February 24, 2016.

I want to thank David Dixon for offering up a spirited review of my book, Success and Failure in Limited War, and the editors of The Bridge for allowing me the space to respond. Dixon fairly presents my conceptualization of limited warfare and does a nice job summarizing my main arguments. While Dixon finds my analysis of U.S. strategy in the Korean War convincing, and despite praising my evaluations of the strategic decision making processes in the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, he remains dissatisfied with the book overall. Dixon contends that I shoehorn the facts to fit my theory in three of the four wars examined in the book (Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq). This conclusion is unwarranted and is born from a few misunderstandings of the claims I make. Below, I will endeavor to clarify what I set out to accomplish in the book and how I went about it.

My Argument

I argue that to succeed strategically in limited war, states must devise military and diplomatic courses of action that minimize the chances of escalation. Escalation in limited war comes principally in two forms: horizontal (the undesired intervention by a third party) and durational (the continuation of the war for a time far longer, and at a cost much greater, than the state expects at the outset). I argue that strategic performance is strongly affected by the state’s information management capabilities. Top policymakers must have the ability to understand the environment in which they are acting (outside information) and how their national security organizations are behaving in that strategic environment (inside information). Strategic risk assessment is based on an understanding of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the challenges and opportunities present in the international environment, and the capability of the state to act in a purposeful way along multiple lines. Without sound outside and inside information, risk assessments will suffer, as will the quality of strategy.

What factors determine the quality of outside and inside information possessed by a state?  The answer I put forward centers on the information flow patterns among top policymakers and their national security organizations. I label these information flow patterns “information institutions” and argue that they have two key features. The first relates to the range of information reaching top policymakers. The broader the range of information available to leaders from multiple organizational sources, the more knowledgeable the leaders will be about both the outside and inside worlds. The second relates to the nature of information sharing among organizations. The more organizations share information with one another, the better the information vetting and accuracy, and the greater the ability of top policymakers to ensure coordinated actions by their national security organizations.

Information institutions come in two general forms. The first, robust information institutions, are those where national leaders have access to multiple organizational sources of information and where organizations widely and routinely sharing information with each other. This information flow pattern allows for strategic decision making to be informed by comprehensive collection and optimal analysis of information, and tight coordination of military and diplomatic activities. Robust information institutions are most likely to produce strategies that are informed by sound risk assessments, and as such, stand the highest chances of succeeding militarily and diplomatically in limited war. 

In my book, I show how American military and diplomatic successes in the Persian Gulf War, and the diplomatic success in the air campaign in Vietnam, were born from robust information institutions. In both of these cases, the White House was the central nodal point of information exchange. As a result, top policymakers were able to achieve comprehensive military-diplomatic direction in these conflicts.

President Truman decorating General MacArthur on Wake Island, October 15, 1950.(Bettmann, CORBIS)

At the other extreme are truncated information institutions, where leaders have access to information only from a single dominant organizational source, and where there is little to no sharing of information by that organization with others in the national security bureaucracy.  This information flow pattern results in limited collection and dysfunctional analysis of information, and uncoordinated military and diplomatic actions. Truncated information institutions generate strategies that are informed by weak risk assessments. Indeed, under these conditions, strategic decision making devolves down to the organization that possesses the bulk of the relevant information. In the end, states with truncated information institutions are the least likely to achieve either military or diplomatic success in limited war.

The Korean War and the ground campaign in Vietnam are the cases that typify the workings and the effects of this information flow pattern. For example in Vietnam, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam’s autonomy in the information institution from 1964-1968 precluded timely and appropriate strategic adaptation to new information. America’s strategy remained constant even when it became evident that the Army’s preferred method of warfare was proving counterproductive in the fight against the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In this case, strategic direction devolved down away from top policymakers, and as a result, the war was prosecuted according to narrowly constructed metrics of success. The result was strategic failure.

I now turn to some of Dixon’s criticisms my analysis of the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq wars. I will highlight where I believe Dixon misunderstands my arguments and offer points of clarification.


Dixon presents a number of criticisms of my treatment of the Vietnam War and it is useful to quote them at length.

Bakich, interestingly, holds up Vietnam as an example of diplomatic success and military failure. He does this by defining victory post-1968 as [sic] “achievement of a ‘decent interval’ whereby American forces could be withdrawn from the conflict”… In defining success as preventing Chinese intervention, he overlooks the entire objective of the Vietnam War in the first place, which was to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. In this, the United States failed by every appreciable measure. Redefining the war as a diplomatic success when its result led to the destruction of the very state the U.S. aspired to protect requires mental jujitsu of the most amazing kind. Defining “victory” as avoiding Chinese involvement ignores the fact that the U.S. could have just as simply done this by not intervening in Vietnam at all.

General Westmoreland with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, November 1967. (Yoichi Okamoto, Wikimedia Commons)

First, Dixon misinterprets how I evaluate the American experience in the war following the Tet Offensive. I argue that for the United States, Vietnam was a limited war that escalated durationally. Based on the three phased strategic plan submitted by General Westmoreland in 1965, the Johnson administration hoped that by the start of 1967 American forces in the south would be in the final mop-up stage of their commitment. From Johnson’s perspective, the Tet Offensive in February 1968 represented neither a last gasp of the insurgency in South Vietnam, nor a golden opportunity to break the back of the NLF, but rather striking evidence that American military commanders were incapable of bringing the ground war to a favorable conclusion. By that time, moreover, the president’s top military and civilian advisers were divided and offered him no clear path forward to achieving American war aims.  In other words, for President Johnson and many of his senior advisers, every day that American forces fought in that conflict after February 1968 amounted to a continuation of the failure of the initial strategy laid out in 1965. The “decent interval” was a downgrading of U.S. war aims, the ultimate purpose of which was to enable the eventual withdrawal of forces. Making this strategic adjustment possible was the absence of Chinese intervention, the critical diplomatic objective of the war. With respect to the post-1968 period of the war, I argue that durational escalation of the ground campaign, combined with the preclusion of China’s intervention, convinced leaders in Washington to scale back U.S. objectives and begin looking for a way out.

General Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson, president of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu and prime minister of South Vietnam Nguyen Cao Ky in October 1966. (Yoichi Okamoto, Wikimedia Commons)

Second, my objective in this chapter is to explain why the Vietnam War escalated durationally, but not horizontally. With respect to the latter, Dixon observes that had the United States not intervened in the war, American leaders would not have had to worry about Chinese intervention in the first place. This is a blunter form of the recommendation made by Under Secretary of State George Ball in the fall of 1964 that the U.S. should substantially scale back its commitments to South Vietnam as a means of avoiding the frightening prospects of escalation in Southeast Asia. Among the questions I seek to answer is why Ball’s recommendation lost out in the interagency decision making process? The answer is that nearly every other military and civilian official at the time feared that to abandon South Vietnam would result in America’s friends and foes alike questioning Washington’s credibility in the global Cold War struggle.[1] The problem for Ball and his allies was that their recommendations to scale back America’s commitment to South Vietnam were offset by others advocating more aggressive courses of action.

Leaders in Washington found themselves in a bind. On the one hand, the prevailing belief was that America’s commitment to South Vietnam had to be honored; to do otherwise would invite disaster in grand strategic terms. On the other hand, policymakers were highly attuned to the possibility that China would intervene in the war if America’s intervention threatened the viability of North Vietnam. But, it wasn’t simply a matter of North Vietnam collapsing followed then by Chinese intervention. Rather, the concern was that Beijing would enter the fray militarily well before the point of Hanoi’s demise in order to bolster the regime. For American policymakers, this cross-over point was the ultimate unknown danger. The only way forward was to proceed cautiously in the air campaign and the graduated pressure strategy offered Washington a sufficient hedge.

Flying under radar control with a B-66 Destroyer, Air Force F-105 Thunderchief pilots bomb a military target through low clouds over the southern panhandle of North Viet Nam. June 14, 1966. (Cecil J. Poss, Wikimedia Commons)

As the air campaign progressed in 1965, three factors became evident. First, the graduated pressure concept was having its desired effect vis-à-vis Chinese decision making. Second, the air campaign was not stanching the flow of men and materiel from the north to the south. Third, the dual goal of coercing Hanoi to the bargaining table and keeping China out the war was unattainable. Far from being blind to this conundrum, leaders in Washington clearly understood the trade-off confronting them: the U.S. could either scale up the air campaign to increase its coercive effect and dramatically increase the probability of Chinese intervention, or the U.S. could plateau Rolling Thunder so as to keep China out of the war and decrease the likelihood of Hanoi ending its support of the southern insurgency. Facing a painful strategic choice, Johnson decided to minimize the chances of Chinese intervention. In sum, Johnson and his top advisers were aware of the paltry coercive effect the air campaign was having on Hanoi. Their problem was that to act otherwise would court what they considered to be a far greater danger.

Persian Gulf

War conference in the Oval Office. (Rich Clarkson, Topeka Capital-Journal)

Dixon’s criticisms of my assessment of the Persian Gulf War stem from a disagreement over the appropriate level of analysis. Dixon critiques my decision not to consider the tactical, operational, and theater-strategic advantages accruing to the United States, factors that contributed its historically lopsided military victory.[2] To clarify, my goal in this chapter is to explain the conjoined American military and diplomatic success, not the substance of its military victory alone.  In other words, my focus is on the simultaneous military strategic success of Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi occupation and the diplomatic success of creating and maintaining the complex global coalition that supported the American-led effort. To explain this outcome, it is necessary to focus attention on the right level of analysis: the pinnacle of strategic decision making where the nexus of military and diplomatic efforts occurs. To put my point differently, we should dismiss any argument that explained the grand diplomatic coalition of the Persian Gulf War (which came into existence prior to the onset of the war) in terms of the American military’s wartime superiority in maneuver, firepower, and precision.  Dixon is right that my argument cannot fully explain the stunning American military victory in the Persian Gulf War. Yet Success and Failure in Limited War is not a book about the causes of military victory, but rather one on the causes of military-diplomatic success.


In my chapter on the Iraq War, I argue that American war planning occurred exclusively in an “empowered stovepipe” connecting President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Commander, U.S. Central Command General Franks. Due primarily to Rumsfeld’s determination to wage the war with the smallest possible commitment of American military forces, the U.S. went to war with a ground force which proved insufficient to conduct effective post-combat stabilization operations. Because American war aims included regime change (from authoritarian to, in Rumsfeld’s phrasing, “…a representative self-government that is not a threat to its neighbors and is committed to the territorial integrity of that country”[3]), the fielded force deficit was a strategic blunder of the first order. I argue that the primary cause of this failure was the systematic exclusion from the strategic decision making process of civilian (and some military) organizations which had analyzed and planned for “the day after.” I conclude that with the emergence of the hydra-headed insurgency following major combat operations, the Iraq War escalated both horizontally and durationally because alternative strategic perspectives were prevented from influencing the plans for the war and its aftermath.

General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, right, gestures during a news conference as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld looks on at the Pentagon in Washington Friday, May 9, 2003. Rumsfeld said it is not possible to know how long U.S. forces will have to remain in Iraq and suggested that stabilizing the newly liberated country could take longer than a year. (AP Photo, Charles Dharapak)

Dixon’s criticizes my analysis in two ways.  First, he notes that when given the opportunity later in the planning process, military strategists were able to increase the overall size of the force. As I discuss in the chapter, COBRA II was larger than GENERATED START in terms of troop strength. But, I don’t think that the situation in Iraq after major combat operations would have been much better had the military been immune from the influences of the Secretary of Defense as Dixon suggests. After all, General Franks consistently treated planning for Phase IV with a dangerous degree of nonchalance.[4]

Second, and more broadly, Dixon argues that, “… the relative weaknesses of the plan lay not in too little ‘coordination’ between the military and their civilian masters, but too much.” Here, Dixon misunderstands what I argue in this chapter.  I do not argue that there was too little coordination between the military and their civilian masters, but rather too little coordination among the military and civilian agencies. The problem with the war planning effort was the absence of officials who could speak to the requirements needed to facilitate a transition from major combat, to post-combat stability, post-war reconstruction operations. More specifically, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State, and the National Security Council staffs had little to no influence in determining how much and what type of resources the United States would have in Iraq after Baghdad fell. American objectives in the Iraq War were substantial and required a “whole of government” effort. Unfortunately, assessments of the strategic challenges, plans to address them, and actions take to accomplish those plans were conducted by only a part of government.

Success and Failure

As I see it, there are three major take-aways from my book. The first is the multifaceted nature of limited warfare. From the get-go, limited wars are infused with as many diplomatic as military challenges. Moreover, the diplomatic front can be as significant in determining the strategic outcomes of limited wars as the military front. The second is the importance of high-level information management in explaining military-diplomatic outcomes of limited war strategies. My intention was to make good on the tasking orders of an old strategist to know your enemy and yourself. To better know the enemy, leaders must be afforded information of many different types; a single dominant source is never sufficient. To better know yourself, leaders must be able to keep tabs on the capabilities and behavior of the many agencies and organizations involved in the limited war effort. Robust information institutions go a long way toward improving leaders’ understandings of the strategic environment and how their state is behaving in it. The third is that while the existing understanding of wartime civil-military relations is valuable, it should be augmented. Specifically, analyzing the performance of all relevant organizations (military and nonmilitary) should be the starting point of our critical investigations into why strategies worked or not. I believe Success and Failure in Limited War demonstrates the utility of this approach.

Spencer Bakich is a visiting lecturer of political science at the University of Richmond and the author of Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.

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Header Image: October 1962 Executive Committee of the National Security Council meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis, White House, Cabinet Room. (Cecil Stoughton, Wikimedia Commons)


In addition to my discussion of the role played by credibility concerns in U.S. strategic decision making in 1964-1965 (pp. 125-166), see Fredrik Logevall, “Presidential Address: Structure, Contingency, and the War in Vietnam,” Diplomatic History, 39, no. 1 (2015).

[2] I should note that I cite two prominent works that focus on this aspect of the war (see p. 151, n. 29), neither of which deals with information institutions or the like.

[3] Rumsfeld quote can be found on p. 190.

[4] So much so that in the immediate aftermath of major combat operations, “Franks was of the opinion that US forces could be drawn down to 32,000 (the size of a single division) by September, assuming all went well” (p. 213).  Of course, there was little insurance built into the final plan to create the conditions that would allow for that draw down.