The Tyranny of Expectations

Ukrainian soldiers monitoring the sky near Bakhmut, March 2024. Serhii Nuzhnenko / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Ukrainian soldiers monitoring the sky near Bakhmut, March 2024. Serhii Nuzhnenko / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

In early 2022, much of the world applauded the heroic Ukrainian troops who held back Russian forces outside the gates of Kharkiv and Kyiv. “This is Ukraine’s finest hour, that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come”, declared then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Its soldiers have demonstrated immense bravery”, said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In a speech from Warsaw, U.S. President Joe Biden proclaimed that Russian forces “met their match with brave and stiff Ukrainian resistance”.

Two years later, Ukrainian soldiers are again resisting massive Russian military assaults, this time in Donetsk, Luhansk, and elsewhere. But now there are far fewer cheers. Instead of celebrating Ukrainian valor, many observers are chiding the country for not turning the tide and going on the offensive. Last November, for example, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made revealing comments to two Russians (who were pretending to be African Union officials): “There is a lot of fatigue, I have to say the truth, from all the sides. We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out”. Ukraine may again be holding off a more powerful aggressor. Yet this outcome now seems like a stalemate, if not a defeat.

The global shift in perceptions is an example of the tyranny of expectations—or how assumptions about who will win a war can skew judgments about who prevails. Outside observers, both experts and laypeople alike, do not evaluate military results by simply tallying up the battlefield gains and losses. Instead, they compare these results to their expectations. As a result, states can lose territory and still be deemed winners if they overperform. States can take land and be labeled losers if they underdeliver. The resulting conclusions about the winners and losers, however skewed, can even rebound and shape the battlefield. Ukraine, for example, lost territory during the initial weeks of Russia’s invasion. But Kyiv’s unexpectedly resolute defense earned it widespread Western assistance, which helped it liberate numerous cities in the following months.

The tyranny of expectations is also at work in another major war: the Israeli campaign in Gaza. When this conflict began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a grandiose promise that his country would “crush and destroy” Hamas. Declaring that he would eradicate the group completely was a mistake. Hamas is amorphous, dispersed, and heavily armed, which means it is almost impossible for Israel to abolish. Netanyahu’s pledge makes it extremely difficult for Israel to be seen as the clear-cut winner of the war. When expectations and reality clash, crisis often follows. Israeli disillusionment with Netanyahu’s war could cause a seismic shock in Israeli politics.

PERCEPTION AND REALITY

At first, it might seem that the key to success in war is to exude great confidence about victory. In wartime, after all, optimism can be a force multiplier, whereas defeatism can be contagious. If everyone thinks one side will win a battle, it really might prevail, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In War and Peace, for instance, Leo Tolstoy argued that Russian troops fled from the French in the 1805 battle of Austerlitz, despite suffering from similar casualties, because the Russian troops had a crisis of confidence. “We said to ourselves that we were losing the battle”, Tolstoy wrote, “and we did lose it”.

But an image of sure success can also be dangerous. Judging who wins and loses in war is incredibly murky, and people may make their determinations by comparing the battlefield result with a (somewhat arbitrary) reference point—their expectations. As a result, a conflict’s perceived winner may have little to do with the outcome on the ground.

Consider what happened in 1975 when forces from the Khmer Rouge, the Communist group in Cambodia, captured the merchant vessel Mayaguez and its 39 American crewmembers. In response, Washington launched a rescue mission that turned into a debacle. Forty-one U.S. service members died, over 50 were wounded, and three U.S. Marines were accidentally left behind in Cambodia, where they were captured and executed. The crew of the Mayaguez was set free, but not thanks to the rescue mission. It turned out that a local Khmer Rouge commander had mistakenly taken the Americans prisoner, and senior Cambodian officials ordered their release before the U.S. raid even started. The raid, then, produced nothing except casualties.

But back home, Americans saw the raid as a huge success. In one poll, 79 percent of people judged U.S. President Gerald Ford’s handling of the crisis as “excellent” or “good”, versus 18 percent who rated it “only fair” or “poor”. Ford’s overall approval ratings surged. One of the main reasons for this upswing was Americans’ low expectations about their military’s capabilities. South Vietnam had just fallen to Communist troops, and so U.S. confidence was at a low ebb. Americans were, therefore, delighted to see Washington put on a seemingly muscular performance. In one poll, 76 percent of Americans agreed that “after losing Vietnam and Cambodia, the United States had no choice but to take decisive action, even risking a bigger war, to get back the ship and crew”.

Great expectations, by contrast, can spur great disappointment. In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson began a “Progress Campaign” to show that the United States was winning in Vietnam. The administration published reams of statistics to demonstrate that the Communists were on the run, bolstering Americans’ confidence. Public support duly ticked upward. But then, in January 1968, Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive and attacked almost every major city in South Vietnam. Tactically speaking, Tet was a disaster for the Communists, as U.S. and South Vietnamese forces inflicted massive casualties. But Americans—having been told that their opponents were running out of steam—saw the offensive as a defeat. U.S. public confidence in the war declined. For the Communists, a battlefield loss became a strategic win, since it put the United States on the long path to withdrawal.

DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH

For Ukraine, the tyranny of expectations initially worked to its advantage. After the invasion, Kyiv was the underdog, with U.S. government officials estimating that Russia might overrun most of the country in just a few days. When Russia failed to seize the capital, Western countries were impressed by Ukraine’s performance, which encouraged them to provide more material aid. In turn, Ukraine launched a series of successful counteroffensives that liberated roughly half the territory Moscow had taken.

But in the process, Kyiv was saddled with great expectations. Western observers began suggesting that Ukraine might somehow drive a bedraggled Russia out of all the territory it took in 2022—and perhaps even the land that Moscow seized in 2014. Some analysts, such as Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor and former State Department official, argued that Ukraine’s offensives could cause the Russian military to collapse. The Ukrainian government, for its part, encouraged such thinking. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged that Ukraine would liberate all its territory and fight “until the end” without “any concession or compromise”. Top Ukrainian officials openly suggested that a cascade of Russian defeats might force Russian President Vladimir Putin from power.

These expectations, however, were completely unrealistic. Russia incurred tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of casualties, but the country was still much stronger than Ukraine. Its GDP was nine times the size of its neighbor’s, and its population was over three times as large. After suffering setbacks, Moscow mobilized more forces, spent months laying mines and preparing other defenses, and learned to use drones more effectively. As a result, when Ukraine launched a highly anticipated offensive in June 2023, it faced fierce resistance. Its efforts quickly stalled out.

In the West, overblown expectations of Kyiv’s imminent success led to widespread disappointment with the Ukrainian counteroffensive, as well as grim prognoses for the war’s future. “I know everyone wants Ukraine to win”, said Republican Senator Ron Johnson in December. “I just don’t see it in the cards”. One poll of Europeans in early 2024 found that only ten percent predicted a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, whereas 20 percent foresaw a Russian victory and 37 percent expected a compromise deal. U.S. and European officials—concerned that the campaign had reached a stalemate and that Kyiv was running short of men and materiel—have even talked with Ukraine about peace negotiations.

The darkened mood has translated into growing skepticism about providing assistance to Ukraine. In October, for example, Republican Senator Mike Lee called the conflict “America’s new forever war”. In December, House Speaker Mike Johnson said, “What the Biden administration seems to be asking for is billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight, no clear strategy to win, and with none of the answers that I think the American people are owed”. In January, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico declared that the only way to end the conflict was for Ukraine to give up territory.

For Ukraine, growing skepticism is, of course, bad news. But the pessimistic turn comes with a silver lining: it may, once again, make Kyiv look like David fighting Goliath and lower expectations for the future. If so, analysts may celebrate Ukraine’s defiance and criticize the slow pace of Russian advances. After all, despite its greater power, Russia is still struggling to capture Ukrainian territory, and Kyiv has enjoyed clear wins in some arenas of the war—such as targeting the Russian navy in the Black Sea. Fighting Russia to a near-standstill remains a massive achievement for Ukraine. Here, Kyiv can better manage expectations by combining confidence in its long-term success with a realistic appraisal of its short-term difficulties. Ukraine, for example, should make clear to policymakers and its global audience that it is a massive underdog battling a brutal dictator and perhaps the third-greatest military in the world, and yet will ultimately prevail in its fight for independence. This story might help unlock more Western aid.

OVERPROMISE, UNDERDELIVER

Unlike Ukraine, Israel has decades of experience with the tyranny of expectations, beginning with the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. During that conflict, Israel clearly defeated the Egyptian and Syrian militaries, but Israelis nevertheless saw the campaign as a costly debacle. After the fighting ended, the country created a commission to determine what went wrong, and top Israel Defense Force officials stepped down. So did Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Israelis were gloomy in part because the Yom Kippur War was an intelligence failure for the government. But a deeper reason is that Israelis had sky-high expectations for their military, rooted in past experience. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel rapidly defeated a coalition of Arab states, leading Israelis to believe their military was, in effect, invincible. Seen through that lens, the tougher fight in 1973 looked like a defeat. (Israeli overconfidence in 1973 also helped cause the intelligence failure, because Israelis assumed the Arab states would never dare attack.) In Egypt, meanwhile, the catastrophe in 1967 dramatically lowered the bar for success in 1973. Egyptians still celebrate the October War as a victory, even though they lost on the battlefield.

This pattern recurred in 2006, when Israel fought Hezbollah—an Iranian-backed militant group—in Lebanese territory. Israel killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters during the war, and afterward, the Israeli-Lebanese border became calmer as Hezbollah troops were replaced by the Lebanese Army and UN forces. But Israelis still saw the war as a defeat. They assumed that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters would be no match for the mighty Israel Defense Forces and that the militant group would be destroyed. Israelis, therefore, were furious when Hezbollah survived and continued to fire rockets at their territory. One former defense minister, Moshe Arens, said that Israel handed “Hezbollah a victory in Lebanon”. Polls suggested that most Israelis wanted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign (although he held on to power for another few years). In a similar vein to the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli government created an official commission to investigate what went wrong.

Today, the tyranny of expectations may encourage Israelis to see their war in Gaza as a failure. Hamas, like Hezbollah, is much weaker than Israel in material terms, boosting Israeli confidence that the Israel Defense Forces should win easily. Israeli officials have strengthened these expectations by making expansive promises, such as Netanyahu’s declaration that the war in Gaza will end with an Israeli win akin to the Allied victory in World War II. “There is no other solution” for Israel, he declared in February, “but a complete and final victory”. It is tempting for Netanyahu to use such rhetoric to rally support, signal resolve, and justify the investment of lives. But maximalist war aims and promises of triumph set Israelis up for disappointment by suggesting that the only acceptable outcome is an outright triumph. Victory would require either removing Hamas entirely from Gaza or forcing the organization’s surrender. Neither is likely.

It is increasingly clear that defeating Hamas is no simple feat. Hamas is a deep-rooted organization that operates through family and clan networks. It is part of the “axis of resistance”: the network of state and nonstate actors that includes Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and various militias in Iraq and Syria, all of which can provide Hamas fighters with diplomatic and material support. Hamas had months to prepare tunnels and other defenses in Gaza. As a result, although Hamas has suffered losses, it is not close to being destroyed. Israel claims to have killed 13,000 Hamas operatives, but the group may have 30,000 or more fighters in total. Support for Hamas among Palestinians in the West Bank has risen. And Israel may be running out of time to deal more damage. It is under pressure from Arab states to end the conflict, and the United States has increasingly criticized the number of Palestinian casualties. U.S. President Joe Biden has warned Netanyahu, for example, not to launch a full-scale invasion of Rafah, which Netanyahu has said is needed to eliminate Hamas. Even some top Israeli officials are worried about endless fighting—and aware that a total victory is impossible to achieve. In January, Gadi Eisenkot, a senior member of Israel’s wartime cabinet, said of the campaign against Hamas: “Whoever speaks of absolute defeat is not speaking the truth”.

Hamas, by contrast, benefits from the tyranny of expectations. As the weaker party to the conflict, observers may see its very survival as a kind of victory, just as with Hezbollah in 2006. In the long-term, then, Israel’s campaign may inadvertently strengthen its adversary or create a new and even more dangerous successor organization.

For Israel, it is probably too late to reset expectations, especially given that it was never the underdog (unlike Ukraine). Israelis are likely to look back on the war as a costly campaign and a missed opportunity—and perhaps as a major defeat. Polls in Israel suggest that confidence in the country’s security is waning. Perceptions of failure could have profound consequences for Israeli politics and society. Inside the country, the result could be a siege mindset, a hardening of Israeli politics, and a search for scapegoats. But recollections of loss could also spur a greater willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians, much as the perceived defeat in 1973 made Israelis more willing to trade land for peace with Egypt. The tyranny of expectations is a tough problem for powerful countries. But sometimes, self-criticism is necessary to make peace.

Dominic Tierney is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.

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