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Abstract

Recent qualitative studies of the relationship between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy put decisions into the following two categories: the President tends to lead or to follow public opinion; public opinion influences decision-making, constrains the decision, or has no impact. These studies typically research the initial decision to intervene, but fail to examine the subsequent decisions to sustain and win a war: financial and human means, conduct, objectives, duration, and communication. I argue that these elements of a winning strategy are impacted by concerns with public support at home. The impact of public opinion on the decision whether to use force is better understood when analyzing the compromise between the perception of anticipated public opinion and the necessities of a military campaign. Public opinion impacts the strategy, the timing, and length of an intervention, and inversely, those elements impact the anticipated public opinion and ultimately the decision to use force or choose a different course of action. The president can expect to influence public opinion and raise the acceptability of an intervention through various means: he can assess the possibility to alleviate the potential political damage of a war by relying on the legitimacy of a UN mandate, using airstrikes to prevent casualties, or framing the debate to emphasize the link of the intervention with national security for example. Only if these options are not expected to be sufficient, will they consider comprising their desired goals for a more popular policy and strategy. As a consequence, there is a back-and-forth process between anticipated public support for a given intervention and the consideration of the use of force: the strategy envisioned for a potential intervention affects the anticipated support, which in turn affects the preferred strategy and in the end the final decision to intervene. Contrary to the current literature, which tends to conclude that the president enjoys a substantial margin for maneuver, an analysis of post Cold War cases of interventions, limited interventions, and military escalations shows that anticipated public opinion limited the president's margin for maneuver and influenced not only the decision to intervene but also the military strategy and in the end, the result of the intervention. These findings contradict the realist paradigm for which only the structure of the international system matters and domestic politics are irrelevant in the study of international relations. This research is primarily based on extensive interviews with high-ranking staffers from the National Security Council (NSC), the State Department, and the Department of Defense involved in the decision-making process as well as the White House pollster and high-ranking officials on the ground. These interviews are completed with open sources. Decisions are also scrutinized in light of their "political context". Indicators include the President's approval ratings and their current trend, the electoral cycle, the support of Congress and the elite opinion, polls on the issue and the salience of the conflict at the time.

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/content/papers/10.5339/qfarc.2014.SSPP0353
2014-11-18
2020-10-01
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