Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, Quagmire in Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl (JSW): At the beginning of graduate school, I read Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. Fisk was a master at conveying Lebanese politics in vivid detail. I was already seriously into comparative politics by then. Although I found great value in Fisk’s description of the war, to me it was also an analytical throwing down of the gauntlet. Could Lebanon really be so unique that we cannot get analytic traction on it as a case to be studied comparatively? What lessons could be learned from Lebanon about civil war and political violence? So in one sense, the book is the result of my interest in studying the Lebanese Civil War from the perspective of the comparative study of civil wars.

The topic of the book came out of something that struck me while studying civil wars: belligerents in some wars seemed to become trapped in war, while other wars progressed towards a conclusion. It took me quite some time to articulate this outcome of entrapment conceptually as quagmire. Once I had done so, I realized that the prospect of quagmire is embedded in understandings of civil war popularly and in policy circles. But it had not been studied.

Events have brought a deep poignancy to the book’s completion. I first probed doing research on the Lebanese Civil War during a side trip to Beirut while I was studying Arabic in Damascus one summer. I was looking into studying Lebanon from the stability of Syria. Now Syria has been engulfed by civil war; things have come full circle.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

JSW: The book conceptualizes the phenomenon of quagmire in civil war and investigates why some civil wars experience it while others do not. There is a common perception that the intrinsic characteristics of countries, for example ethnic or sectarian divides, or certain types of wars, lead to quagmire. This is especially pernicious when it comes to analyses of the Middle East. The book argues against this “folk” notion of quagmire. I show how the strategic structure of civil war—the interlocking set of interactions between belligerents and potential backers—can systematically produce quagmire. This means that key actors make decisions that are responsible for the outcome. Quagmire, then, is made, not found.

Quagmire in Civil War uses multiple layers of evidence to support the argument. The book’s core is a study of the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1990, based on field research. This includes interviews with former commanders on all sides of the war. I try to put readers in the shoes of decision-makers as I examine turning points in the war and assess the plausibility of the argument about the causes of quagmire. A second layer of evidence comes in the form of statistical analysis of all civil wars fought around the world between 1944 and 2006. Here, I show that the incidence of quagmire can be observed systematically across civil wars, and that there is there is support for the argument about the causes of quagmire well beyond Lebanon. A third layer of evidence is a structured comparison of civil wars in Chad between 1965 and 1994, which experienced quagmire, and the civil war in Yemen in 1994, which did not. The analysis here juxtaposes Chad and Yemen with Lebanon to rule out alternative explanations of quagmire. The account of the trajectories of the wars in Chad and Yemen provides additional support for the book’s argument.

The implications of the book’s findings for policy contrast starkly with the conventional wisdom. Foreign powers often provide moderate levels of support to belligerents in civil wars in order to hedge their bets. The book suggests that all-or-nothing intervention policies stand the best chance of avoiding quagmire or extricating a civil war country from it. This means that rather than being a virtue, moderation can be a vice in policies for confronting civil wars in foreign countries.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

JSW: The interviews with former combatants that I conducted during my research for the book had an important influence on the way I now approach studying civil war. Sitting with these women and men in order to learn about their life histories during the Lebanese Civil War, I came to see, in sharp relief, the gap between the sterile way I had understood the war when reading about it in books and articles, and the lived, intense experience of war. My research tries to provide a useful dialogue between the analytic and human realities of wars.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JSW: Quagmire in Civil War is a book about how societies can become entrapped in ongoing warfare. It is also a book that questions the policies that foreign governments usually pursue towards countries experiencing civil war. And it is a book about Lebanon.

Anyone with an interest in geopolitics and current wars, like those in Yemen, Syria, and Libya will find the book relevant. It provides a framework for understanding these conflicts even though I do not write directly about them. I hope that readers who are interested in any given ongoing war will be able to explore developments in it by analogy to the processes that I highlight in the wars that the book covers in detail.

I also hope that people who work in international organizations, government, and policy will take a look. The book’s policy implications are controversial. I hope that readers who are not sympathetic to them will read through the evidence in the book to understand how I reached those conclusions. I may not be able to convince them, but I hope that Quagmire in Civil War will give them a fresh way to think about civil war.

The book tackles the history and politics of Lebanon, even though Lebanon is not its sole focus. I hope that anyone who is interested in these subjects will read its chapters on the Lebanese Civil War, whether or not the theme of quagmire catches their attention.

On a separate note, the book is intended for multiple audiences, so it is structured to allow readers with distinct interests—general versus academic; country or region-specific; thematic; or methodological—to read it in different ways. I wrote it with non-specialists in mind. Technical aspects of the analysis are in the appendices and readers can skip these without missing any important aspects of the argument or evidence. And readers whose principal interest is in one part of the book can look at that part in isolation. At the same time, each part builds on and benefits from features of other chapters. This invites readers to explore. For example, readers who are only interested in Lebanon may find that the comparisons with Chad and Yemen help them to better understand the Lebanese Civil War. Or, readers who prefer a narrative might turn directly to the chapters on Lebanon and the comparisons with Chad and Yemen. But since Chapter 5 explains the rationale for using statistical methods and comparing across all civil wars, I hope that if they read some of it, they will come to appreciate the value that this type of analysis brings to accounts of individual wars.

J: What other projects are you working on now?  

JSW: One of the book’s underlying themes is that behavior in civil wars that appears disastrous from an outsider’s perspective can be the result of strategic incentives. My current projects on the civil war in Syria explore this same theme. An article coming out of one of these was recently published in Rationality and Society“On-Side Fighting in Civil War: The Logic of Mortal Alignment in Syria.” The article studies how “on-side” fighting—fighting between armed groups that are and continue to be aligned on the same side of the war—is devastating in terms of its human costs and the damage it does to the ability of armed groups to succeed strategically in winning the war. The article introduces on-side fighting as a concept. While it had not been studied as such in the literature, conventional explanations of related behavior emphasized the impact of interpersonal disputes between leaders, ideological conflicts, the balance of power between groups, or differences in the social bases of groups. The article shows instead how on-side fighting can emerge as the result of the absence of enemy threats to those groups’ existence at a local level.

In a second project, I study how the Assad regime’s use of violence to repress peaceful opposition and retaliate against participants in protests during 2011 pushed escalation to civil war in some areas of Syria but not in others. I am interested in understanding differences in the escalation of the war at the local level and the extent to these were the result of individuals joining the armed opposition because they perceived there to be no other way out (with apologies to Jeff Goodwin for using the very apt phrasing of his book title here).

A third project, forthcoming as an article in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, looks at the Syrian Civil War from the outside. I examine the Obama administration’s policies towards the war and explain shifts in these policies as being the result of attempts to manage political risks to the president. In other words, Syria policy was often not about Syria.

J: Is quagmire not the same as a really long civil war? 

JSW: The book intentionally makes a sharp distinction between quagmire and the duration of a civil war. Conceptually, quagmire is about entrapment: do the belligerents face incentives that push them to continue to participate in the war, rather than exit from it? The length of a civil war can depend on many factors that have nothing to do with entrapment, such as the topography of the country. This means that the length of a war compared to that of other wars can simply be uninformative when it comes to quagmire. It is possible for a civil war that lasted a relatively long time to not feature entrapment of belligerents, and therefore not to have experienced quagmire. And it is possible for quagmire to have occurred in a relatively short war. For us to understand the causes of quagmire, it is important to first conceptualize it in its own right.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, The Lebanese Civil War, 1975–1990, “Issues,” pp.57-58, 64-67)

In 1975, Lebanon faced a seemingly bewildering array of political issues. Emerging ideological political parties more and more surely challenged the grip of traditional political leaders over their turf in a patronage-based political system and society, threatening to replace them. Social change and urbanization continued to alter the landscape of quotidian life and family relations, bringing populations into new contact and proximity, disturbing local patterns of life, fueling tensions and hardening sectarian, class, and generational divisions. Economic growth increased prosperity but reinforced patterns of inequality, and so proved an inadequate balm for social injustice. Added to the mix were the actions and sheer presence of Palestinian armed groups, which posed an ongoing and active challenge to the sovereignty of the Lebanese government. Palestinian military forces had arrived in strength in Lebanon in 1971, taking refuge from their defeat by the Jordanian government in a brief civil war. These supplemented an existing Palestinian armed presence and embedded within an existing refugee population of their co-nationals, which dated to the 1948 war that established Israel. Even before the influx from Jordan, Palestinian armed groups had used Lebanese territory to stage guerrilla raids against Israel. The raids brought Israeli military reprisals on southern Lebanon and even locations within the capital city, Beirut, causing a backlash from Lebanese civilian populations and an outcry for the government to rally to the Palestinian cause. Regional conflict cast a shadow over developments within Lebanon, not only through the Israel–Palestinian conflict but also via the Arab–Israel conflict. The 1973 war punctuated the latter but was no conclusive juncture in it. The contending sides saw in it how costly future battles would be, but remained subject to the pressures of insecurity. Cold War international politics overlay these dynamics. Regional powers and their superpower patrons observed Lebanon to assess how events might tip global competition; Lebanese political actors looked to take cues from these foreign actors in determining how to play their domestic struggles.

Each issue produced its own strand of tension in Lebanon. Lebanese politics, though, turned on a single fulcrum, around which these issues were therefore structured. That fulcrum was the National Pact.

[…] To bring the role of the National Pact into sharper focus, let us return to the areas of change reviewed at the outset of this section. As I will outline below, these areas were all connected to the National Pact. Each either exerted pressure against the stability of the existing balance of sectarian power and represented a need for re-equilibration, introduced new forces to be taken into account in the sectarian bargain, or constituted a tool that Lebanese actors believed they could use to achieve or resist either of these preceding goals.

Formal politics had undergone a transition in the years since independence. The era of traditional leadership by notable figures, familiar to studies of Ottoman Lebanon, had passed. A varied cast of politicians and parties stepped into the void. Some amassed large popular followings. Other assumed the role of the traditional politicians catering to a limited geographically based constituency. But the political system erected barriers to entry for non-sectarian leaders or parties, and made it difficult even for sectarian leaders to consolidate political power commensurate with their popular followings. As the 1958 civil war illustrated, the street and violence were therefore a viable outside option. Mass incorporation into politics driven by urbanization, increased educational attainment, and Lebanon’s political development after independence made the potential for mobilization stronger and more dangerous than in 1958.

Demographic change put pressure on the validity of the elite economic consensus underpinning the pact, called the political bargain further into question, and put pressure on quotidian interactions in society. Though it is questionable whether the Pact was ever viewed as legitimate by those excluded from it from the very beginning, demographic and associated socioeconomic change meant greater demands from the disenfranchised. Urbanization disconnected new migrants to the cities, principally Beirut, from traditional lines of political control and reciprocal obligation. The harshness of disenfranchisement and deprivation in a laissez-faire system then bit deeper. Urban migrants were now outside the traditional safety net, such as it had existed via traditional political and social structures in villages. With increasing urbanization, it also became easier for political leaders to mobilize the disenfranchised. Dense residential quarters facilitated class-based movements by providing easier access to workers of different sects. Sectarian-based movements managed to more easily overcome the fragmentation of local ties. Members of growing communities that could consider themselves to be an absolute majority in the Lebanese population (e.g., the poor, the Shi‘a) or members of minority communities that viewed the power allotted them as inadequate (e.g., the Greek Orthodox) found their needs stymied by the Pact.

Economic inequality created pressure for politics to address long- standing distributional problems. The Sunni–Maronite commercial consensus was entrenched, though, and not interested in addressing this. Existing political parties were largely patronage-based and held ideological positions regarding the structure of the polity domestically, and only tangentially regarding policy, economic or social. The first years of the war showed a growth in ideological politics, exposing the inadequacy of the almost apolitical politics as practiced by those in government due to the Pact.

No avenue could be found to settle increasing Lebanese polarization over the role of the Palestinians within the political system. Sectarian leaders and partisans viewed them as a threat to their power within the system or an opportunity to enhance it. The Palestinians were there- fore courted as power brokers, making them more central and more dangerous to stability. The Palestinian political organizations that set themselves up in force after 1971 found fertile ground in Lebanon: a weak state, an existing population of their co-nationals, and ideological affinity with disenfranchised Lebanese, and perhaps even common cause with Lebanese exposed to Israel’s raids on the Palestinians since 1969. Palestinian armed groups already present before 1971 increased in visibility and activity after they were joined by their co-nationals fleeing Jordan. That they were flush with funds from foreign patrons increased their attractiveness to potential Lebanese recruits. At the same time, the Palestinian presence prompted forceful challenges from those opposed to it politically; that presence in itself caused conflict with local populations; residents of the areas in which Palestinian groups held sway resented their presence and intrusion into everyday life. Especially in southern Lebanon, fear of Israeli reprisals due to Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel permeated local communities. Palestinian power, unregulated by the Pact, could thus easily destabilize it. The cultivation of the Palestinians by Lebanese politicians who viewed them as potential allies and even saviors in their domestic political struggles exacerbated the problem.

The turn to outsiders as potential sources of power to augment a sect’s capabilities within Lebanon in order to stabilize or renegotiate the Pact brought Lebanese politicians to court foreign states. The international environment in which the Middle East was situated in any given era affected its salience to outside powers, and accordingly attention to Lebanon. The First and Second World Wars and the Arab–Israeli wars were all events that attracted foreign states to meddle in and establish their presence in the region; war challenged or deepened their interests in the region. The years surrounding 1975 made the region more salient to outside powers for these reasons, the 1967 and 1973 Arab–Israeli wars fresh in memory. Lebanese politicians thus found the turn to foreign states for assistance easier.

What should be clear by now is that the structure of Lebanese politics created incentives for domestic Lebanese parties to first and foremost exist and formulate policy around the idea of preserving or doing away with whatever interpretation of the National Pact bargain prevailed, to align themselves with or in opposition to regional trends as one of their main policy offerings, to court superpower assistance and often more importantly the direct financial or other backing of regional powers.

With the issues reviewed above being so wide-ranging, how should one understand the war? The secondary literature, personal narratives looking back on the events, and even contemporaneous analyses offer a range of explanations of the war’s causes and the (shifting) issues dividing the Lebanese against one another during this period. However, to summarize the narrative to this point, I argue that we can interpret Lebanese politics largely as institutional politics. Parties’ attention and efforts were captured by efforts to negotiate, preserve, or renegotiate the institutions of government themselves. The use of political institutions for the purpose of governing was secondary; fundamental distributional problems or pressing social and economic ills were by and large ignored in formal politics. The perspective I offer here, then, is that for the purposes of understanding the civil war, these diverse issues all can be traced back to the National Pact’s role in the political system. As a fulcrum, the Pact defined the principal dividing line between the parties to the conflict: belligerents fought either to reshape the political system or to maintain the status quo.


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