COIN and Moral Hazard in Democracies

In response to a post a few weeks back on the economics of COIN, WPR reader and Northwestern University professor Jon Caverley directed my attention to some related work he’s done (.pdf) on the question of why democracies choose to wage counterinsurgencies, despite firepower-heavy military doctrines that are ill-suited to winning them. Caverley uses a process analysis of the Vietnam War to argue that:

. . .capitalized military doctrine results in a condition of moral hazard for the average voter, shifting the costs away from the median voter and leading a democratic state to pursue attempts at military coercion whose expected value in increased security is outweighed by the likely total costs for the state. Furthermore, the voter will support using a capital-intensive military in conflicts where its e ffectiveness is low because the decreased likelihood of winning is outweighed by the lower costs of fighting. The result is the continued application of an inefficient military doctrine in pursuit of modest war aims, a low likelihood of victory or a combination of the two.

Put another way, because the costs of military intervention have been redirected away from human casualties and toward material losses, the average voter will tend to accept interventions with only a marginal chance for increasing national security, despite the fact that the aforementioned redirection has resulted in military doctrines that are ill-suited to winning these wars. So what explains democracies’ historic resistance to shifting towards a more troop-heavy COIN doctrine that could improve the chances for success? If we are to believe Caverley, the average voter’s aversion to dying.

I, for one, believe Caverley, which is why I’m curious to see how long the American public’s embrace of the U.S. military’s COIN doctrine lasts.

Thanks to Jon for sending his paper. It gives me the opportunity to point out that while readership of the blog has been steadily growing, it has remained largely tightlipped when it comes to feedbacl. So by all means, if you have relevant expertise, an interesting link, or even just want to push back against something I’ve written, feel free to contact me by email. I welcome the feedback, and chances are readers will as well.