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

As both commander in chief and holder of the highest elected office in the United States, presidents must inevitably balance competing objectives of the national interest and political survival when assessing alternative military strategies in war. Yet while we all have some intuitive sense that elections “matter” in some way, exactly how, why or when they do so is not well understood. This talk will explore the ways in which electoral pressures push and pull presidents away from courses action they otherwise deem strategically optimal during an ongoing war. Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with former administration officials and senior military leaders, it will demonstrate how the nature and timing of the Iraq surge of 2007, as well as the pace and finality of the subsequent drawdown, were shaped by considerations related to the domestic political calendar.

Dr Andrew Payne is the Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Junior William Golding Research Fellow at Brasenose College. His research explores the impact of domestic politics on US foreign policy, with a particular geographical focus on the Middle East. He is currently working on a book manuscript examining the influence of electoral cycle in shaping wartime presidential decision-making, and has wider interests in civil-military relations, diplomatic history, and domestic constraints on US grand strategy. His writing has been published in International Security, Politics, International Affairs, the Conversation and the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage series. In addition to his academic work, Andrew serves on the board of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.