Presidents, Politics, and Military Strategy: Electoral Constraints during the Iraq War

Andrew Payne, Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations, has published a new article on how electoral politics can influence the decisions of US presidents during wartime.


How do electoral politics affect presidential decisionmaking in war? As both commander in chief and elected officeholder, presidents must inevitably balance competing objectives of the national interest and political survival when assessing alternative military strategies in war. Yet, how and when electoral pressures influence decisionmaking during an ongoing conflict remains unclear. Drawn from the logic of democratic accountability, two mechanisms of constraint may be inferred. First, presidents may delay making decisions that are perceived to carry excessive electoral risk. Second, electoral pressures may have a dampening effect, causing presidents to water down politically sensitive courses of action to minimize any expected backlash. Recently declassified documents and interviews with senior administration officials and military figures illustrate these mechanisms in a case study of decisionmaking during the second half of the Iraq War. Both George W. Bush's surge decision of 2007 and Barack Obama's decision to withdraw troops in 2011 are shown to have been profoundly influenced by concerns related to the domestic political calendar. These findings call for further study of the nuanced ways in which the electoral cycle shapes wartime decisionmaking.

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    Cover of 'International Security', Winter 2019/20, 44 3.
Dr Andrew Payne is Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations