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Bringing the boys back home: Campaign promises and US decision-making in Iraq and Vietnam

Andrew Payne analyses Obama’s troop drawdown schedule in Iraq and Richard Nixon’s handling of the denouement of the Vietnam War to shed light on Trump's foreign policy. 


This article argues that electoral politics acts as an important constraint on presidential decision-making in war. Going beyond the existing literature’s focus on cases of conflict initiation, it outlines how electoral pressures push and pull presidents away from courses of action which may otherwise be deemed strategically optimal. Importantly, however, these electoral constraints will not just apply on the immediate eve of an election but will vary in strength across the electoral calendar. Together, this conceptual framework helps explain why presidential fulfilment of rhetorical pledges made on the previous campaign trail may be belated and often inconsistent. To probe the plausibility of these arguments, case studies of the closing stages of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq are outlined, drawing on archival and elite interview material. These episodes demonstrate that electoral accountability can be a powerful factor affecting wartime decision-making, but its effect is non-linear, and not easily observed through a narrow focus on particular timeframes.

Dr Andrew Payne is Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations; William Golding Junior Research Fellow