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January 22, 2002

Right on Target

By Eric Rangus


When Dan Reiter was writing his latest book, Democracies at War, he and coauthor Allan Stam had no idea that their work would be released into a world that had seen America's bloodiest day since the Civil War.

An American campaign in Afghanistan was not a consideration as Reiter and Stam finished their book, which was complete before the first bomb fell on Kabul. But much of the subject matter of Democracies at War, which studies the manner in which democratically elected governments wage and win wars, is eerily appropriate to the post-Sept. 11 world.

“One argument we make is that democracies will be very conservative in their foreign policy, meaning that they will only get involved in conflicts that they are very sure they are going to win, win quickly, and win with few casualties,” said Reiter, associate professor of political science.

“I think the Bush administration recognized that [Afghanistan] was an environment that at the least we could minimize U.S. casualties because it would be a war using air power. That would minimize political exposure. Of course, it turned out much more successfully than even the Bush administration could’ve hoped.”

According to Reiter, the way the United States has conducted its war in Afghanistan—and practically every conflict since Vietnam—stands in sharp contrast to the way dictators or one-party states enter battle.

“In 1980, when the Soviets sent lots of troops into Afghanistan, they were not terribly concerned about incurring a lot of casualties, because the government didn’t worry about domestic political threats,” Reiter said.

The Soviets lost that war, but the communists stayed in power—for a time. Reiter also brought up the example of Iraq, which has fought two major wars under the guidance of dictator Saddam Hussein: a very costly stalemate against Iran, and the war that Reiter called “arguably the worst military defeat of the 20th century,” the Gulf War.

Despite those losses, Hussein remains leader. This, Reiter said, is another major difference between democracies and autocracies. Democratic leaders must worry about the political fallout that comes with casualties. That fear, Reiter said, does a lot to shape military strategy, particularly in this country.
“It makes air power a tremendously attractive instrument for an American president,” he said. "Because we have such tremendous air superiority, we’re likely not to take any casualties. The worst that happens is we withdraw with essentially zero or very few casualties.”

Does the sudden relevance of Democracies at War mean a possible spike in sales when it is released in March? (“I hope so,” Reiter joked). Regardless, Reiter and Stam had a wide audience in mind when they were writing the book. It is aimed at upper-level undergraduates and history and political buffs. Statistics are kept to a minimum.

“It’s not a Stephen Ambrose best seller, but hopefully it’s the kind of thing one can assign to an upper-level undergrad, and that student can get a lot out of it,” Reiter said.

He is already on the promotions wagon. Last week, he scheduled a book signing for March 9 in Druid Hills Bookstore.

Reiter first became interested in military history and political science while in high school in the early 1980s. He was fascinated with the Cold War, which, during the Reagan years, was front and center in the American political consciousness. In 1989, Reiter graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in political science, then earned his Ph.D. five years later from The University of Michigan.

After a year of postdoc work at Harvard, he was hired as an assistant professor at Emory 1995. Reiter was promoted to associate professor in 2000.

For a younger academic studying war (as well as one without a military background), the 34-year-old Reiter holds a different perspective than other professors—particularly on what is seen by many as America’s most difficult war, Vietnam.

“Vietnam-era people, I think, have a very polarizing view of the war,” Reiter said. “For younger people like me, it’s much less emotional issue. It’s a war—you can study it. You can think about it.”

Reiter said he once asked a leading political scientist why he hadn’t researched Vietnam. He was told that it was just too emotional. Also, when a manuscript of Democracies at War was submitted to Princeton, its publisher, a member of the review board was so incensed that Reiter and Stam (a political science professor at Yale and a former Special Forces soldier) had described the Vietnam War as a draw until the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 that he did not want the book to be published.
Work on Vietnam is just one avenue Reiter would like to explore in future research. He is also looking into new statistical approaches to study international relations, among other projects.

One thing’s for sure, he’ll have some funding to work with. He and political science Assistant Professor Christopher Zorn are sharing a National Science Foundation grant to fund the statistical project. Reiter also received the 2002 Karl Deutsch Award from the International Studies Association (ISA). The award is presented to a scholar under 40 (or within 10 years of his doctorate) who is judged to have made “the most significant contribution to the study of international relations and peace research.”

The cash prize isn’t large ($500), but the prestige factor is quite high. Reiter will accept the award at ISA’s annual conference in New Orleans, March 25.

Beyond his research, two of Reiter’s main interests are rock climbing and hiking. He has helped out at the rock-climbing wall in the Woodruff P.E. Center, primarily as a way to interact with students outside the classroom.

In the Odd But Interesting Habit category, Reiter hopes to eventually ascend to the highest point in each of the 50 states. In less than five years, he’s already bagged 24.

The first one came by accident. Looking to break up a monotonous drive from Denver to Atlanta, Reiter spied a small dot on his road atlas identifying the highest point in Kansas.

“So, I checked it out, and it’s basically just a bump,” Reiter said. “Half the high points are hilarious, and the other half are just nice hikes.” In the first month of 2002, Reiter already has checked off the highest points in Ohio and Indiana.

Personally, Reiter and his wife, Carolann, are expecting their first child in April. They were married in 1999. Carolann is a graduate of the Goizueta Business School, but the two did not meet on campus.

“We’re the same age, so it’s not like she was my student,” Reiter laughed.




Back to Emory Report January 22, 2002

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