Politics, Security, Military, U.S. Foreign Policy

Syrian intervention, political calculations and party affiliation: Political science perspectives

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Last updated: September 5, 2013

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For both President Obama and members of Congress, the calculus of whether or not to intervene in the Syrian conflict has many variables. Some are unique to this particular moment in time and conflict, but stepping back, researchers have examined some of the more general dynamics and principles that may help guide understanding of war and peace decision-making.

Matthew S. Levendusky and Michael C. Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania find that a President’s reasons for avoiding a conflict — his success in framing a decision in terms of a larger national interest — matter a great deal in terms of public reception, and that he can, surprisingly, overcome partisanship under certain conditions. In a 2012 paper in The Journal of Politics, “When Backing Down Is the Right Decision: Partisanship, New Information, and Audience Costs,” they find that “while citizens do impose audience costs, and their impositions varies systematically with the circumstances, presidents get far more leeway than one might have commonly assumed (e.g., there’s little partisan division, even in an era of considerable partisan polarization). But that temporal qualifier is crucial: as elites debate stretches out, partisan divisions emerge and grow in the electorate. So if the president can prevent elites from fracturing along partisan lines too quickly, this can give him increased ability to lead U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. presidents often consider public opinion, of course, when deciding whether or not to go to war or to strike bargains in foreign affairs. But the public does not necessarily employ the same standards for all presidents, and Democratic and Republican presidents may prompt different responses for the same actions, researchers note. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, “The Political Costs of Crisis Bargaining: Presidential Rhetoric and the Role of Party,” tests and measures public opinion about various leadership choices. The surveys used in the study, authored by Robert F. Trager and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA, presented hypothetical crises, in which possible outcomes included “stay out,” “concession” or “back down,” to “successful war” or “unsuccessful war”; test groups were asked to express approval/disapproval.

The study’s findings include:

  • The partisan affiliation of citizens has a strong correlation with their patterns of approval/disapproval: “Independent voters view Democratic presidents who stay out of conflicts harshly, penalizing them with a 65% disapproval rating (and a 29% approval rating). Republican presidents, on the other hand, receive a 23% disapproval rating and a 43% approval rating.”
  • Further, independent voters also “penalize Republican presidents who choose to fight unsuccessful wars: 63% of independents disapprove of Republican presidents in this situation, while only 37% disapprove of the Democratic presidents, a 26-point difference.”
  • There were no statistically significant differences between staying out of war scenarios and unsuccessful war scenarios in presidential approval ratings: “when significant foreign policy interests are at stake, presidents may be better off in terms of approval if they fight unsuccessful wars than if they stay out of military conflicts.”
  • Keeping promises plays a strong role in approval ratings: “Presidents who say the ‘U.S. military will protect the smaller country’ and then decline to involve the United States when the smaller country is invaded get approval ratings of 16%, a 24-point drop from the ratings of presidents who say they will stay out.”
  • Following through on a commitment is the best way to ensure higher presidential approval ratings: “when a president has made a specific commitment to use the U.S. military, backing down is by far his or her worst option. Even if the United States is certain not to achieve its objective and to lose 4,000 U.S.troops in the process, the better option from the point of view of public approval is for the president to fight the war rather than back down.” Indeed, a president “who goes to war and loses American lives without achieving the objective actually has a much higher approval rating in the end—40%.”

The researchers conclude that “executives of the two parties face different incentives in international crises. Incredibly, particularly when the opposition in Congress is critical of the president’s policies, Democratic presidents have incentives to fight losing wars that achieve nothing rather than remain out of crises. Republican presidents, by contrast, have strong incentives to stay out of losing wars.”

In the canon of studies in this area, the 1994 paper by James Fearon of the University of Chicago, “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes,” remains one of the touchstones.

Related research: Of course, the way a given public forms opinions is partly shaped by the news media. A 2013 study by Matthew Baum of the Harvard Kennedy School, “The Iraq Coalition of the Willing and (Politically) Able: Party Systems, the Press, and Public Influence on Foreign Policy,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, looks more broadly at global publics and finds the following: “Evidence from the Iraq case suggests that the media do influence states’ conflict behavior in differing ways and to varying degrees, depending in part on the institutional environment in which they operate. In multiparty states, increased public access to television reduced both support for the war and the propensity to commit troops to the Coalition. In contrast, in two-party states, greater media access is associated with lower opposition to the war and higher troop commitments, but a weaker link between the two.”

Tags: presidency, war, Syria


Writer: | September 5, 2013

Analysis assignments

Read the UCLA study "Political Costs of Crisis Bargaining: Presidential Rhetoric and the Role of Party."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

For a sense of how the issues touched on in the study continue to play out, read the issue-related Washington Post article "Obama’s task: maintaining support for the Afghan war."

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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