Security Studies Program Seminar

The Past, Present, and Future of Military Operations

David M. Edelstein, Ph.D.

September 14, 2005


Dr. Edelstein began his talk by asking "Why do some military occupations succeed whereas others fail?"

He then proceeded to review the historical record of military occupations, which include:

•  24 military occupations since 1815
•  7 successes, 13 failures, 4 mixed
•  Of those 7 successes, 6 were in the immediate post-World War II period.

According to Dr. Edelstein, the challenge of occupation includes:

•  In order to succeed, military occupations require time and resources.
•  The longer an occupation goes on, the more likely an occupied population is to resist— nationalism
•  The longer and costlier an occupation is, the more impatient an occupying power is likely to become
•  To succeed, occupying power must both satisfy the occupied population (suppress nationalist sentiments) and maintain commitment to the occupation.

Moreover, the following preconditions influence the probability of success:

•  External threat: The presence of an external threat to the occupied territory satisfies occupied population (value protection of occupying power) and sustains the interest of the occupying power
•  Pretext for occupation: occupation more likely to succeed when it follow major war. Occupied power values the help in reconstruction and occupying power will feel obligated to assist in the reconstruction of a territory it has destroyed

Dr. Edelstein outlined the following policy choices:

•  Once occupation begins, an occupying power is more likely to succeed if it pursues wise policies
•  1st strategy: political accommodation. Co-opt local political elites into the occupation project. Elites may be able to control the nationalist instincts of the occupied population, but need to select the correct elites. For example, American occupation of Korea after World War II did not go well because selected Rhee as leader.
•  2nd strategy: inducement. Attempt to quite the occupied population by providing resources. RAND studies on nation-building find correlation between resource investment and success and failure. Resources are a necessary, but not sufficient requirement for occupation success. Need to solve political problems of occupation, not just resources (this is a shortage of the resource argument). Why are occupying powers willing to provide these resources in the first place? External threat variable is important.
•  3rd strategy: coercion. Defeat resistance to occupation through the use of violence. It is costly and may only promote more opposition to the occupation.
•  4th strategy: persuasion. Persuade occupied population that occupation is legitimate and appropriate according to international norms. Potentially the least costly of the available strategies, but not much evidence that occupied populations respond to the legitimacy, rather than consequences of the occupation.

Dr. Edelstein also emphasized that the question of when to withdraw can be especially problematic:

•  Both successful and unsuccessful occupations confront a challenge of when to withdraw
•  Too soon, you may have to reintervene
•  Too late, and you may find yourself unable to extricate yourself.
•  Finding out the "just right" condition is difficult

Dr. Edelstein reviewed the following cases of occupation to illustrate the preceding propositions.

•  West Germany (success)

•  North Korea (success) and South Korea (mixed)

•  Haiti (1915-1934) (failure)

•  Iraq (at this point, a failure)

In response to the present American occupation of Iraq , Dr. Edelstein proposed the following:

•  US should move immediately toward withdrawal (as soon as referendum on Constitution takes place)
•  If a civil war is going to happen, then it is big risk for it to happen with US there. If a civil war is going to happen anyway, then is it better to be in the middle or out of it?

In conclusion, Dr. Edelstein proposed of future of military occupations:

•  Military occupation is something to be avoided if at all possible
•  The primary challenge of occupation is a political problem: nationalism
•  Resources can help, but nationalism can only be solved with political strategies
•  The post-World War II cases were the exceptions, not the rule


Dr. Edelstein is an assistant professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University . He is also a core faculty member in Georgetown 's Security Studies Program and Center for Peace and Security Studies. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and completed his undergraduate studies at Colgate University . He recently published "Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail" in the Summer 2004 issue of International Security.

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005