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Diversionary Use of Force by American Presidents Essay

This article takes the contrary position that American Presidents have not made use of the tactic of using foreign conflicts to distract the public from domestic issues. The authors present three critiques of the techniques from which historians have drawn this conclusion. First, the authors claim that using increments of time as a unit of measure, rather than international crises has led to skewed results. Second, the research supporting this theory proceeds under the erroneous assumption that a President may choose when to respond to international crises.

The third critique of the methodology of supporters of Diversionary Theory is that there are significant political payoffs for the diversionary use of force. The authors suggest alternatives to each of these errors and offer analysis based on these revised data. In the case of the first error, the authors use the occurrence of international crises, rather than artificial divisions of time as the basis of their numbers on frequency of action on international issues.

With respect to the second error, the authors suggest eliminating times of high international crisis and low international crisis in order to statistically limit observations to those situations where the president has the discretion to actually act, or not act as he sees fit. According to the authors, only “mid-level” crises give the President enough discretion to consider domestic political circumstances as a determining factor. Regarding the third error, the authors merely reject the premise that the President would risk and lose the lives of its own citizens for a purpose no greater than political gain.

The author goes on to point to research that offers data to the effect that such a tactic has been historically ineffective. In sum, citizens do not blindly rally around a President over any international use of force. The authors offer an alternative model of analysis using a different set of variables. The first of these is Congressional support. As the President loses congressional support in his own party, he is more likely to use diversionary force to bolster his party-support.

The data used to measure this factor are the numbers of supporting votes during roll calls the President received when articulating a clear position, and the percentage of victories in both houses of Congress (averaged) from six months prior to the use of force in question. The supposition is that as these numbers decrease, the use of force in international affairs will increase. The second measure that the authors propose is popular support. Interestingly, they predict no correlation between partisan and overall approval numbers and the use of force.

The third measure suggested by the authors is something they refer to as the “Misery Index”. This is a standard tool of political analysis that takes inflation rates and unemployment rates as a sum to give a quantification of economic prosperity overall. The authors use the misery index of the month preceding the use of force. They predict no correlation between a high misery index and the use of force. The authors argue that Presidents know that the tactic simply does not have a lasting effect that is worth the overall cost.

Another measure adopted by the authors is the imminence of an election. Again, given the dangers of using the “October Surprise”, having a cynical public realize the trick, or having the use of force backfire right before voting, the authors again predict no correlation. The variable of level of international crisis is described by the authors as well. Using a complicated system of evaluation of crises, the authors are able to classify crises as small, medium and large. They predict that diversionary force is more likely to occur in the medium-level crises than in the other two.

The dependant variable, represented as a zero-sum construct (i. e. 0= no force used, and 1= force used) is whether force is used in response to given national crises. The time period examined for the study is 1953 to 1988. In summary, the authors conclude the following: of all domestic variables, only congressional approval bears the expected inverse correlation to the use of force among domestic variables, and high-level crises are most likely to elicit the use of force. Thus, it is concluded that this model produces little support for the diversionary theory of the use of force.

Gowa, J. (1998) “Politics at the Water’s Edge: Parties, Voters, and the Use of Force Abroad”. International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), pp. 307-324 Gowa examines whether the frequency of the use of force abroad is variable across political parties, or in elections cycles. As a unit for measurement, Gowa uses Alberto Alesenia’s model of two-party competition in order to generate her hypothesis. The range of time she examined was 1870 to 1992. Gowa reviews the literature on the subject of diversionary force and notes the gap in data with respect to partisan politics.

She observes that short-term “rally to the flag” support during foreign use of force is fairly well documented, and that indicators about the use of force in election cycles, or pending elections are mixed. She suggests that the data is consistent in showing that use of force does not vary by election cycle, but does vary across political party. Gowa then summarizes Alesina’s studies which indicate that elections do not prompt candidates to deviate from their core policies, but rather to emphasize them. She describes two tests that yield contradictory results.

In the “one-shot” test, the study supposes a single election, in the multi-shot version, a continuous series of elections are assumed. In both tests, in impending election had the effect of moving the parties closer to their core ideals, whereas the multi-shot test alone predicts partisan deviation for ideal message. Gowa then justifies and quantifies her variables. She begins the analysis at 1870 for two primary reasons. First, most studies focus only on the 20th century, and second, GDP information is only available after 1869.

She uses the Brookings institute 1979 study on the use of force from 1946, and Correlates of War to define Militarized Interstate Disputes, which are the units of measure for Gowa’s study. The author finds that neither political-military cycles, nor partisan politics have any observable effects on the use of force abroad in the defined time period. Thus, with respect to the use of force abroad, politics does “stop at the water’s edge”, a finding Gowa styles as surprising because other foreign policy issues have what she describes as a ‘partisan imprint”.

DeRouen, K. (2000) “Presidents and the Diversionary Use of Force: A Research Note” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun. , 2000), pp. 317-328 DeRouen offers his own analysis on the use of diversionary force. He uses force and presidential approval as the variables he examines. His study covers the years 1949 to 1994, and controls for Soviet/Russian crisis situations. He concludes that a “rally to the flag” effect does indeed occur in the short term, and that unemployment has a statistical impact on the frequency of the use of force.

In his overview of the literature, DeRouen notes that a number of studies indicate the presence of a diversionary force tactic, and more studies have quantified a recognizable “rally effect” with respect to the use of international force. The “rally effect” is a term applied to the short-term boost in approval that presidents typically receive at the beginning of a military action. He notes that Ostrom and Job’s study showed a positive correlation between misery index numbers (unemployment + inflation) coupled with presidential popularity and the use of force abroad.

He also cites Hess and Orphanides, who found that from 18953-1988 the use of force correlated with high unemployment and impending election cycles. He also notes two studies by Fordham, one of which points to a decrease in force usage during times of high unemployment (1949-1994), that Presidents are more likely to use force during election cycles in wartime years, and that Republicans are more likely to use force in times of high unemployment, while Democrats are more often triggered by high inflation. DeRouen also notes those studies which seem to “de-bunk” both the “rally effect” and the diversionary theory in general.

He cites Oneal and and Lian with respect to the former and Meernik and Waterman (See above) for the latter. He notes that Yoon (1997) had actually quantified a decrease in the use of force during election cycles. Given the contradictions in study results, DeRouen elects to revisit diversionary theory. He chooses to divide the phenomena involved into discrete categories he describes as “rally” and “diversion”. The test of the validity of diversionary theory, according to the author, must reflect both of these measures.

DeRouen relies on Fordham’s raw data to construct his study. He uses Kaplan and Blechman’s definition of force and analyzes force and approval variables using data collected from three different studies covering 1949-1994. The author uses unemployment and inflation as indicators of domestic economic performance, similar to earlier uses of the “misery index”. Control variables include opportunity for the use of force, which DeRouen quantifies by counting crises in a given quarter. A second control is styled as Soviet/USSR acts, which are identified by deriving ICB data.

The final control variable considered by the author is ongoing war, which the author reasons, since casualties have depressive effects on both force and approval, represent a domestic political constraint. DeRouen concludes based on his findings that presidents will use force as a diversionary tactic during times of economic hardship. To wit: when unemployment is high, the President act forcefully and this in turn raises his approval rating. On the other hand, he also concluded that if the public attention is focused on the economy, the president reduces the use of force, a finding that tends to contradict diversionary theory.

James, P. & Oneal, J. (1991) “The Influence of Domestic and International Politics on the President’s Use of Force” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 35, No. 2, Democracy and Foreign Policy: Community and Constraint (Jun. , 1991), pp. 307-332. James and Oneal observe that conclusions found by Diversionary Force Theorists, such as Ostrom and Job that domestic factors play a greater role in presidential decision-making in considering the use of force in international affairs play a larger role than do international considerations fly in the face of realist theories which predict the opposite.

This study reexamines the data monitored by Oster and Job and adds another element called the “severity factor” to the findings. The purpose is to determine if severity as a characteristic has a larger effect upon presidential decision-making than does domestic circumstances, a conclusion more consistant with realist theories. The severity index proves to be more influential than the domestic factors outlined by Oster and Job, but those domestic factors remain a significant influence upon presidential decisions.

The authors note that Oster and job’s study implies that foreign and domestic policy are intertwined, an approach that inherently contradicts the realists’ notions that such matters are considered discreetly by leaders. They then review the methodology of Oster and Job, noting that they designated three categories of motivation for presidential use of force: domestic, foreign and political conditions. Within domestic conditions, the economy, and people’s attitude toward the use of force both in and out of the strategic context in question are the elements measured.

With respect to the international conditions, the level of tension, involvement of the USSR, and level of ongoing involvement of the US in the conflict are the measures taken. In terms of political factors, the level of political success, popular support of the president and proximity to an election are the key factors. The authors outline their own methodology. They use the time frame and increments used by Oster and Job, quarterly increments from 1949 to 1976.

Their three dependent variables are the use of major or nuclear-level force by the United States, a second measure of force derived from OLS regression analysis, and a dichotomous indication as to whether the US are in an international crisis. These three variables are styled Y, FORCE, and CRISIS respectively. Y is a major-minor dichotomous determination. FORCE is a more involved analysis of overall force based upon all levels of involvement. A fourth element, SEVERITY by degree was also considered.

The authors concluded that SEVERITY was the most prevalent factor in determining whether force would be used. They came to the less-than-shocking conclusion that Soviet-involved crises were most likely to elicit a force-oriented response. Given that this data is culled from the heart of the Cold War era, these results are hardly a surprise. The authors also noted a consistent finding that correlates the misery index (domestic economic considerations) with the use of force. Fordham, B. (2005) “Strategic Conflict Avoidance and the Diversionary Use of Force”.

The Journal of Politics, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Feb. , 2005), pp. 132-153 Fordham analyzes data to determine whether diversionary force theory is flawed as it ignores an important element in the decision making process. This element is the idea that leaders will avoid international conflict with other leaders who are experiencing domestic political difficulties. Fordham claims that data analysis conforms with the conclusion that “target” enemies of the United States behave in a friendlier manner when the US is suffering from economic ills.

Fordham calls this phenomena Strategic Conflict avoidance. Fordham considers the existing literature noting that if the thesis that economic hardship triggers diversionary force, that the theory that enemies would “play nice” during times of economic hardship would skew the data and would need to be examined as a separate factor. The theory of strategic conflict avoidance has a middle level of validity considered in the abstract in studies examining the behavior of leadership during crisis, but Fordham finds a qualified validity of the phenomenon in this study.

Fordham begins his construction by identifying potential “target” states for diversionary force to be utilized by US presidents. He then constructs a quantification of strategic avoidance behavior. In terms of potential targets, Fordham draws on Goertz and Diehl’s “traditional rivals” list of 20 nations that had the most conflicts with the United States in the modern era. In quantifying strategic avoidance, Forham emphasizes the importance of behavior that stops short of military aggression. A second measure of strategic avoidance is failing to respond to actions of the United States that appear to be provocative.

A third such action is avoidance of hostility against a third state. The United States had traditionally responded with force when a sovereign nation invades its neighbor as evinced in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Fordham further notes that other behavior of rivals (other than strategic avoidance) must also be quantified in order to avoid specification error. These other variables include whether the rival state was already at war, the rival state’s own military strength, the rival’s state of domestic affairs, and the regime type of the rival state.

Fordham concludes based on his study that conflict avoidance is a legitimate factor in determining whether diversionary force is used by US presidents. Fordham offers that this significant factor that has been heretofore not considered in tracking instances of diversionary force has been inappropriately forgotten or discounted. Fordham concludes that strategic avoidance is a factor that ought to be included, but not replace factors of existing or future analyses of diversionary force behavior.

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