"Domestic Preferences and Strategic Contexts: Why America Fights 'Dumb Wars'"
Jason Brownlee (Professor of Government at UT-Austin)
Abstract: This paper develops a general theory of how US administrations define their collective policy preferences and, from those preferences, produce national strategies on interstate war and diplomacy. The paper applies this framework to variations in US strategy in the Middle East under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The theory begins with identifying whether an administration’s national security principals favor expansionism or non-expansionism in three main interest areas: force projection, regime behavior, and energy supplies. These collective preferences constitute the foreign policy posture of an administration, but they do not determine policy in isolation. Collective preferences intersect with the redistributive implications of a given strategic context: How much do the administration’s national security principals expect to gain or lose if the United States pursues aggression or negotiation with the target country? The resulting framework helps to explain why an expansion-inclined president (Bush) invaded Iraq while engaging Iran, and why an expansion-averse president (Obama) promoted regime change in Libya but exercised restraint toward Syria. Beyond the selected cases, the theory can help students of international politics understand America’s recurring pursuit — but also its periodic avoidance — of seemingly “dumb wars” in the Middle East.
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