On August 3, 1972, President Richard Nixon sat down with Henry Kissinger to discuss the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Having initially doubled down on his predecessor’s commitment of blood and treasure, the war in Southeast Asia had long since become a strategic distraction. The president encouraged his national security advisor to be “perfectly cold-blooded about it.” As détente with the Soviet Union and the opening of China gathered pace, Nixon wanted out. And he was now willing to take “almost anything, frankly” to get Vietnam off his plate.
The catch? “We also have to realize,” warned Nixon, “that winning an election is terribly important.” The South Vietnamese government was probably “never gonna survive anyway,” but if it collapsed prior to November that year, it could spell disaster for the president’s reelection hopes. “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two,” agreed Kissinger. “After a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”
It is an inconvenient truth, rarely admitted, that leaders habitually take electoral considerations into account when making decisions about military and diplomatic strategy. At once commander-in-chief and holder of the highest elected office, presidents must balance the often competing objectives of the national interest with personal political survival. Yet while most analysts have some intuitive sense that elections “matter” in some way, exactly how, why, and when they do so is poorly understood.
My ongoing research on the impact of electoral politics on wartime decision-making seeks to address this question. In a recent article in International Security, I map out two specific ways in which the domestic political calendar shaped the development and execution of military strategy during the Iraq War. Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with senior officials, I argue, first, that President George W. Bush’s decision to surge troops to Iraq was delayed due to concerns about the political risks of doubling down before the 2006 midterms. Second, I show how President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops in 2011 underwent a political screening process that dampened down earlier proposals to keep a follow-on force in theater. Military advisers may not like it, but they would do well to understand the political constraints that elected officials face.
Electoral Constraints and Presidential Decision-Making
The idea that elections act as a source of constraint on decision makers is not new. Since ordinary citizens bear the brunt of the human and financial costs of war, they should hold a natural aversion to conflict. In a democracy, where elections allow voters to retrospectively punish leaders for excessive belligerence, decision makers are incentivized to act with a degree of caution in matters of war and peace for fear of later reprisal at the ballot box.
Existing work has explored a range of decision-making behaviors that flow from this basic logic. Political scientists have argued, for example, that democratic leaders are picky about choosing when and where to fight. Deciding to commit forces overseas is made considerably easier in cases where the chances of victory are high, or where casualty rates are expected to be low. When actively engaged in an ongoing war, meanwhile, elected officeholders tend to adopt military strategies that minimize the exposure of troops to harm. By shifting the burden of fighting to coalition allies, or favoring light-footprint approaches that prioritize technology, speed, and mobility over manpower and attrition, the political costs of war can be mitigated. And by funding a war effort through increased borrowing, recent US administrations have been able to avoid the divisive public debate that the imposition of a “war tax” often sparks.
Taken together, these incentives seem to explain some striking patterns in the conflict behavior of democratic states—not least their tendency to avoid entering wars as an election approaches. After all, as Bush remarked to forces in the Middle East in 2006, “you don’t run for office in a democracy and say, please vote for me, I promise you war.”
George W. Bush and the Iraq Surge
What does this look like in practice? Consider Bush’s decision to surge troops to Iraq. My research indicates that the deployment of almost thirty thousand additional troops and the embrace of a new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy was delayed by at least six months due to concerns about the political risks of shifting course in the lead-up to the 2006 midterms—an example of how the influence of electoral pressures extends even to cases in which the incumbent’s name is not on the ballot paper.
That the administration perceived a need for a change in strategy is beyond doubt. By the spring of 2006, Iraq was descending into civil war. The existing military strategy, premised on the desirability of transitioning security responsibilities to local forces as quickly as possible, had failed to stem spiraling sectarian violence. “It was becoming painfully obvious that we had neither the right military strategy in Iraq nor enough forces to carry out the flawed one that we were pursuing,” recalled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The president agreed. “This strategy is not working,” he told his national security advisor. “We need to find a new one.”
Yet despite several attempts by officials to spark a reassessment of the way forward, a formal interagency process would not be initiated until November 2006. While some individual agencies began their own internal reviews, they remained stuck in bureaucratic silos, while efforts to convene a frank discussion at the presidential level miscarried back into debates about minor adjustments. “With the 2006 midterm elections approaching, the rhetoric on Iraq was hot,” Bush would later explain, adding that while he understood a change was needed, “I decided to wait until after the elections to announce any policy or personnel changes.” Just 6 percent of Americans favored an increase in troops in a June 2006 poll; senior Republicans, meanwhile, were pleading with the president to withdraw some forces as a political token. Bush understood that while any admission that things were going so badly that the administration was considering a change of course would be politically damaging, a surge of forces would be particularly unpopular. “The fighting would be tough,” he wrote, “and casualties could be high.”
The midterms were a crucial turning point in the decision-making process. “Basically the day after the election,” recalled a senior State Department official, “it’s as if all of a sudden the windows had been opened and fresh air is coming in.” In a flurry of National Security Council meetings in the ensuing weeks, the record reveals a president with a newfound sense of urgency. “I am running this show,” said Bush, repeatedly suggesting the addition of troops and promising “radical action” to achieve victory.
The decision to surge, widely credited as at least a necessary cause of the considerable improvements in security that followed in the ensuing years, was announced in January 2007. It had been a long time coming. “Everything that happened then,” lamented one adviser, “could have happened more than a year earlier, or two years earlier.”
Barack Obama’s Decision to Withdraw from Iraq
Four years later, all US forces had been withdrawn from Iraq. Yet it did not have to be that way. Beginning in 2010, the Obama administration debated plans to keep troops in theater on advise-and-assist missions designed to support local forces and undertake limited counterterrorism operations aiming to forestall a resurgence of al-Qaeda.
Yet over the course of several months, the White House insisted that military proposals for a follow-on force be whittled down. The administration wanted to offset the political risks of being seen to abrogate the president’s campaign pledge to end what he had famously called a “dumb war.” As the 2012 campaign season drew closer, the political sensitivity of keeping any troops beyond the December 2011 deadline imposed by a 2008 status of forces agreement grew strong enough to lead the president to abandon the effort altogether. While administration officials later cited legal concerns about proceeding without a subsequent agreement approved by the Iraqi parliament, many view this claim skeptically in light of the decision to reintroduce troops in 2014 without such a deal. As former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy told me, “That ended up being an excuse, or a public explanation, for what I believe was a policy choice.”
Obama’s decision to withdraw all US forces is illustrative of what I refer to as the dampening effect that electoral pressures can have on decisions about military strategy. In contexts where a president cannot delay, decisions to increase or sustain the deployment of US forces will likely be watered down in an effort to minimize or eliminate their politically noisy components.
It’s the Politics, Stupid
The two decisions explored here are not identical—one involves the escalation of an ongoing war, the other its de-escalation—yet both reveal a marked presidential reluctance to embrace courses of action that entail a prolonged or increased military commitment as an election approaches. Such proposals may be deemed strategically beneficial, but the likelihood and timing of their adoption appears to depend at least in part on the stage of the electoral cycle.
These findings are substantively important when considering what might have happened absent the impact of electoral pressures. It seems likely, for instance, that something like the surge might have been attempted several months earlier than it was. Whether or not lasting success was achievable under the revised strategy remains the subject of considerable debate, but it seems plausible that the administration missed a short-term opportunity to limit bloodshed and move toward a resolution of sectarian tensions. In Obama’s case, the presence of a few thousand troops may not have been able to achieve lasting peace in Iraq, but several officials cite the absence of a follow-on force as a permissive factor in the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State, a threat that persists to this day.
Military leaders may be tempted to scorn the kind of behavior described here, but some degree of sensitivity to the preferences of voters is woven into the fabric of democracy. It is in some sense unavoidable. It is no surprise that President Joe Biden and his party have scrambled to reorient their pitch to midterm voters in recent days, hoping that the White House’s robust response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might offset some of the criticism of the administration’s handling of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
Senior officers may therefore be better off seeking to understand the inherently political context in which their advice will be weighed by elected officials. After all, insofar as these domestic pressures encourage presidents to adapt courses of action in ways that military professionals might deem suboptimal, they have potentially profound implications for the viability of the proposed options—look no further than the course and conclusion of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan for evidence of how the sustainability of military commitments in a democracy can hinge on public and congressional opinion.
To be sure, senior military officers should not tailor their recommendations to suit the narrow political interests of the civilian leadership. To do so would further erode the military’s nonpartisan ethic. But they can and should offer their assessments with an awareness of the wider menu of issues that are beyond the military’s purview but that nevertheless have bearing on the feasibility of proposed courses of action—from budgetary constraints to the relative permissiveness of the political environment. More concretely, by providing a wider range of military options to suit alternative end states with varying means, rather than rigidly offering their best military advice, military leaders can increase the probability of proposing a sound plan that falls within the president’s decision space. In so doing, they can help reduce the prospect of civil-military friction and promote a more dynamic approach to the development and implementation of military strategy.
Andrew Payne (@Andy_J_Payne) is the Hedley Bull research fellow in international relations at the University of Oxford and a William Golding junior research fellow at Brasenose College.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Liliana Moreno, US Air Force