Causal beliefs and war termination

Date01 January 2018
Publication Date01 January 2018
AuthorMarco Nilsson
SubjectRegular Articles
Causal beliefs and war termination:
Religion and rational choice in the
Iran–Iraq War
Marco Nilsson
School of Education and Communication, Jo
¨ping University
This article analyzes the length of interstate wars and the process of reaching a mutually acceptable bargaining
solution. Rational choice scholarship has mainly sought to explain long wars in terms of commitment problems and
private information. This article complements these rational choice perspectives by arguing that causal beliefs – a
variable not considered by previous research – can also prolong wars by increasing expectations of battlefield
performance and slowing down information updating. It illustrates the role of religiously based causal beliefs with
the case of one of the longest interstate wars of modern time, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–88. Even though
commitment problems were present, they do not identify the root cause of Iran’s high expected utility of continuing
the war, as religiously based causal beliefs played a more prominent role in prolonging the war. Religious causal
beliefs constitute a real word mechanism that not only creates different priors about expected military capacity, but
also slows down the process of updating beliefs, as battlefield events are not seen as credible information. Although
the prevalence of religious conflicts has increased over time, the formation of beliefs and their effects on wars remains
understudied when applying rational choice to real world conflicts.
causal beliefs, rational choice, religion, war duration, war termination
Why are some wars longer than others? This article ana-
lyzes the length of interstate wars by creating a model of
war termination that explains how causal beliefs – a
variable not considered by previous research on coercive
bargaining – can prolong wars. The incorporation of this
new variable is a supplement to the rationalist research
program that has focused, for example, on the role of
private information and commitment problems, some-
times even in conjunction wit h each other (Wolford,
Reiter & Carrubba, 2011). The article illustrates the role
of religious causal beliefs with the case of one of the
longest interstate wars of modern times, the Iran–Iraq
War of 1980–88.
Most wars end in a negotiated solution rather than
one belligerent’s being completely overrun (Kecskemeti,
1958). Therefore, to solve the puzzle of war duration,
rational choice models started to highlight the role of
cost–benefit calculations (Wright, 1965; Porsholt,
1966; Wittman, 1979; Bueno de Mesquita, 1981; Pillar,
1983; Ikle
´, 1991), as wars were seen as coercive bargain-
ing. Most of these models were based on the same the-
oretical approach in which unitary actors adjust their war
aims in accordance with their current or expected battle-
field performance, that is, events endogenous to the war.
Peace is made when both sides ‘develop similar expecta-
tions about the war’ (Stanley & Sawyer, 2009: 652),
causing one side to lower its war aims more than the
other side raises its war aims, such that a bargaining space
is created.
Fearon (1995: 393) famously argued that private
information about relative capabilities and resolve, and
incentives to misrepresent them, lead to a mismatch
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
2018, Vol. 55(1) 94–106
ªThe Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343317730120

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