Editor's Introduction: Presidents, Politics, and the Use of Force

By Koch, Michael T. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Editor's Introduction: Presidents, Politics, and the Use of Force


Koch, Michael T., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Domestic politics and foreign policy have long been intertwined. The notion of "politics stopping at the water's edge" as Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously argued in 1947 has largely been just that, a convenient notion. Political oppositions, Congress, and others have long criticized a president's foreign policies for political advantage. In 1916, Republican presidential candidate Eliot Root rebuked both President Wilson and the administration for their handling of the nation's foreign affairs (Chicago Daily Tribune 1916a). Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman William R. Willcox accused the Wilson administration of playing politics with foreign policy (Chicago Daily Tribune 1916b). And while some consensus appeared, both between parties and branches for the early years of the Cold War, domestic politics has always been part of presidential decisions of whether, when, and where to use force. For example, after the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 and the subsequent dismissal of MacArthur from his command, a divide emerged between parties over which would be better at prosecuting the war (Belknap and Campbell 1951). Recent events suggest politics continues to be part of foreign policy. Whether it is the "Red Line" that never was, the events of Benghazi, or the continued fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of these events have spilled over into politics, highlighting how foreign policy and domestic politics are intrinsically intertwined.

Much of the research examining this intersection of politics and policy examines presidential, or executive, uses of force. This research focuses on the political constraints that executives face in attempting to achieve foreign policy goals and on the political incentives that presidents may have to use foreign policy tools for domestic political purposes. Studies focusing on the incentives or disincentives to use force typically examine the state of the economy and public opinion and build from either the diversionary hypothesis framework and/or the rally 'round the flag effect. Research on constraints examines executive legislative relations and the influence of the election cycle. Is Congress united or divided? Is it of the same party of the president? Are elections drawing near when the public can directly hold a president accountable? Do term limits alter incentives and constraints?

The articles in this issue examine these research areas involving presidents and the use of force abroad. As noted above, scholars trying to understand how domestic politics interacts with choices to use military violence abroad focus on four broad and related research areas. The first is executive--legislative relations. Given the nature of checks and balances in the system, one would expect Congress to be involved in the foreign policy process just as it is in the domestic political arena. On the one hand, there is some consensus that Congress is less than active in intervening in the decisions about when and where presidents use force. Hickley (1994) suggests that Congress usually defers to the presidency on these questions. Howell and Pevehouse (2005) come to similar conclusions, suggesting that executives are unfettered by congressional interference, reinforcing the notion of two presidencies, one foreign and one domestic.

However, other research suggests that executive--legislative relations do influence use-of-force decisions. Congress can use institutional means such as budgetary and appropriations restrictions, reporting requirements, and oversight investigations to influence policy. Members of Congress can use their own political positions to publicly denounce foreign policy choice and maximize blame for failed foreign policies, undermining public support and presidential approval (Foster 2006; Marshall and Haney 2010). Furthermore, work suggests that the partisan composition of Congress matters. Is the government united under a single party or does the opposition control the House, Senate, or both? …

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