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International Studies Review (2020) 0,12
How to Get Bogged Down in a Civil War
University of Oxford
Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl. Quagmire in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2020. 317 pp., £24.99 paperback (ISBN: 978-1108486767).
In 1965, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam used the word “quagmire”
to describe the American entrapment in the Vietnam war (Halberstam 1965). Fifty-
five years later, Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl sets out to uncover the phenomenon of
quagmire. Why, the author asks, do some civil wars last longer than expected, even
in the face of rising costs of fighting? The answer, he argues, lies in the strategic
structure of conflict and in the associated decision-making problems that emerge
for belligerents and foreign sponsors.
In common parlance, quagmire often refers to any long-lasting civil war.
Schulhofer-Whol, instead, defines quagmire around the central idea of entrapment.
A civil war experiences quagmire if “for at least one of the belligerents, continuing
to fight costs more than its expected benefits, but withdrawing will increase rather
than avert these net costs” (p. 4). Schulhofer-Wohl thus argues that quagmire is
not a by-product of the initial decision to start fighting, but the result of strategic
interaction between armed groups and their foreign backers.
The prevailing narrative in the civil war literature is that belligerents will stop
fighting when the costs of war become too high or when the benefits are low. In
Chapter 2, the author develops a formal model to explore the conditions under
which, counter to established wisdom, belligerents choose to prolong fighting even
as the costs rise or the stakes of the conflict decrease. This happens if a belligerent
expects to receive foreign assistance and can switch from territorial warfare to guer-
rilla fighting. Because the backer absorbs a portion of the belligerent’s costs, the
latter uses this subsidy to remain an active party to the conflict. Yet, the belligerent
also has little incentive to escalate the war and achieve a quick victory, engaging in-
stead in low-cost, non-territorial warfare. As a result, the war is harder to conclude,
peace attempts get spoiled, and quagmire ensues. The appendix derives the full set
of quagmire equilibria.
Chapters 3 and 4 examine the theory through an analysis of the Lebanese Civil
War from 1975 to 1990. Chapter 3 presents an overview of the main actors and
cleavages of the conflict, as well as the alternative explanations for why belligerents
might keep fighting: ideological commitments, polarization, and foreign manipula-
tion. Chapter 4 contains the bulk of the theory testing effort. Drawing on 120 hours
of interviews conducted in Arabic with former combatants across multiple armed
groups, Schulhofer-Wohl describes the rationale behind four episodes in which the
weaker party kept fighting in the face of an unfavorable balance of power: the LNF’s
decision to continue fighting in January 1976; a second attempt to restart fighting
in 1978; Amine Gemayel’s shunning of a political settlement in favor of the forceful
Spatafora, Giuseppe. (2020) How to Get Bogged Down in a Civil War. International Studies Review, doi: 10.1093/isr/viaa044
© The Author(s) (2020). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.
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2How to Get Bogged Down in a Civil War
expansion of government control between 1982 and 1984; and General Aoun’s re-
jection of the Taif peace accord in fall 1989. Quite convincingly, the author shows
how these factions deepened their participation in the war based on the availability
of external support and the opportunity to de-escalate to non-territorial warfare.
While some key elements of the strategic interaction are left uninvestigated—for
instance, an untested assumption of the model is that expectations of foreign sup-
port would not be sufficient to justify continued fighting had the belligerents not
believed that the other side would refrain from escalating the war—the wealth of
empirical and anecdotal evidence makes this chapter the highlight of the book.
Chapters 5 and 6 assess the external validity of the theory. Chapter 5 identifies a
strong statistical link between quagmire and the strategic interaction between bel-
ligerents and foreign backers by regressing the residuals of a survival analysis of civil
war on different measures of foreign interests, the stakes of the conflict, and esca-
lation costs. While the research design is innovative, the analysis is hindered by the
high likelihood of omitted variable bias (e.g., foreign support is not included in the
duration model) and the use of mostly pre-conflict covariates to test a theory about
endogenous dynamics of civil war. Chapter 6 tests the quagmire theory against al-
ternative explanations by comparing Lebanon with a very different civil war that
experienced quagmire (Chad) and one that, despite similar strategic conditions,
did not (Yemen).
Building on his extensive knowledge of civil wars in the Middle East and com-
bining the literature on rational explanations for war with that on war economies,
Schulhofer-Wohl provides the first academic study of quagmire, developing an il-
luminating theory and convincing empirical backing. Still, some parts of the the-
oretical model might oversimplify the relationship between foreign backing, war
type, and duration. For example, foreign support might not be the only, or even
the main, reason behind the choice to fight a given type of warfare. Belligerents
cannot always choose how to fight due to capability gaps. Also, there could be cases
in which foreign backers prefer low-cost fighting (e.g., they might value the secrecy
of low-cost warfare, which grants them plausible deniability). Finally, the book is
belligerent-centric, and except for Chapter 2, the sponsor’s position remains largely
overlooked. For example, do all types of foreign backing have the same effect? Spon-
sors could use some forms of support to exert more leverage over the belligerent.
Nonetheless, Quagmire in Civil War represents a groundbreaking contribution to
the study of war duration and foreign involvement. The book will be appealing to a
variety of audiences in political science, conflict studies, and international relations.
The chapters on the Lebanese Civil War will be of particular interest to scholars
working at the intersection of Middle Eastern studies and political science. Policy-
makers, too, could use this book to learn how great powers get bogged down in a
civil war, from Vietnam in the 1960s to Syria today.
HALBERSTAM,DAVID . 1965. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era.NewYork:
Random House.
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The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era
  • David Halberstam
HALBERSTAM, DAVID. 1965. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. New York: Random House. Downloaded from by Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, on 31 July 2020