Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict

Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict

Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict

Diversionary War: Domestic Unrest and International Conflict


The very existence of diversionary wars is hotly contested in the press and among political scientists. Yet no book has so far tackled the key questions of whether leaders deliberately provoke conflicts abroad to distract the public from problems at home, or whether such gambles offer a more effective response to domestic discontent than appeasing opposition groups with political or economic concessions.

Diversionary War addresses these questions by reinterpreting key historical examples of diversionary war-such as Argentina's 1982 Falklands Islands invasion and U.S. President James Buchanan's decision to send troops to Mormon Utah in 1857. It breaks new ground by demonstrating that the use of diversionary tactics is, at best, an ineffectual strategy for managing civil unrest, and draws important conclusions for policymakers-identifying several new, and sometimes counterintuitive, avenues by which embattled states can be pushed toward adopting alternative political, social, or economic strategies for managing domestic unrest.


Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
may waste the memory of the former days.

—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2

IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1998, AT THE HEIGHT OF THE MONICA Lewinsky scandal, U.S. President Bill Clinton authorized air strikes against alleged terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Several Clinton critics asserted that the bombings were intended to shift focus from the president’s admission that he had lied about having an improper relationship with White House intern Lewinsky. In a Salon editorial, for example, Christopher Hitchens wondered why the president hurried to attack: “There is really only one possible answer to that question. Clinton needed to look ‘presidential’ for a day.” And every major media outlet, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC, ran stories on the speculations that the bombings were an attempt to divert attention from the scandal.

Indeed, on several occasions the administration’s top national security aides were compelled to deny publicly that the attacks were linked to the president’s personal and legal troubles. For example, Secretary of Defense William Cohen was asked during a press conference whether he had seen the movie Wag the Dog, in which a Washington spin doctor fabricates a war to distract the public from the president’s liaison with a teenage girl. Cohen declined to answer directly, saying that “The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities.” Meanwhile, video rentals of Wag the Dog soared.

Despite the administration’s emphatic denials, the event exhibited many hallmarks of a classic diversionary use of force, which is to say an international . . .

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