4 May 2014

To Escalate or Not to Escalate?

This article was provided by Bryan Groves, a US Army strategist and PhD student at Duke University. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Combined Arms Center, the School of Advanced Military Studies, the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program at Fort Leavenworth, or Duke University.

U.S. presidents have made decisions to ramp conflicts up or down throughout the nation’s history, with varied outcomes and sometimes unclear connections to vital national security interests. Presidents Reagan and Clinton chose to withdraw American military forces from Lebanon and Somalia respectively. Two seemingly very different presidents, from opposite political parties, walked a similar path when deciding whether to expand or contract a military mission overseas. What drove their decisions for deescalation? In the last six years, another Republican and a Democratic president have decided to “surge” additional military forces and civilian personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan respectively. What led these two leaders, again with divergent political ideals and conceptions about the use of force, to implement such similar approaches? How did President George W. Bush and President Obama reach these decisions, especially given that the American public in both circumstances was weary of war and saw the probability of achieving success as limited? Were there similar factors at play in each of these two pairings that caused apparently different leaders to reach similar conclusions, for or against escalation?

Political science, economics, and psychology offer a variety of useful conceptual explanations including prospect theory, the rational actor model, the organizational process model, bureaucratic politics, diversionary war, utility theory, and cognitive bias. Drawing on these fields, I offer a unique theory for each case study. “Projecting strength” was the impetus behind Ronald Reagan’s decision to abandon the U.S. military mission to Lebanon. “Higher priorities” at home and abroad caused Bill Clinton to bring troops home from Somalia. On the other hand, George W. Bush chose escalation in Iraq because he “feared losing on his watch.” Finally, candidate Obama cast Afghanistan as the “good war,” and President Obama acted in accord with what that label would suggest. I lay out the four case studies sequentially, explaining how the corresponding model in each case explains the decision for or against escalation. I then describe alternative models and explain why the selected model in each case study has greater explanatory power than the alternatives. Before concluding with the policy ramifications, I show how a researcher could test my models against the alternatives.

Rescue workers remove the body of a U.S. Marine from the rubble of the Marine Battalion headquarters at Beirut Airport on Oct. 23, 1983 / AP

President Reagan initially sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of a Multinational Force to keep the peace in the wake of fighting between that country and Israel. They arrived in 1982 and spent eighteen months on the ground before Reagan withdrew them in March of 1984. President Reagan’s decision followed the suicide bombing of the Marine Barracks at the Beirut International Airport in October 1983. Terrorist incidents continued to be a problem afterward, as did fighting between Israel and the PLO in Lebanon. However, it was that attack that captured the most public attention. It was also the proximate cause for Reagan’s reassessment of the strategic importance of the mission. Upon pulling the Marines out, the president indicated that he was not abandoning Lebanon, but rather diverting the Marines to more defensible positions. Reagan also said that keeping the forces in place would result in them remaining a target and without the ability to contribute to the original peacekeeping mission. The decision precipitated the disintegration of the Multinational Force. The other elements, comprising British, Italian, and French forces, pulled out of Lebanon a month later, in April 1984.

Given the context, President Reagan determined that keeping the Marines in Beirut, or sending more, did not make sense. It was not in the United States’ national security interest. The mission had changed, Reagan recognized it, and he acted accordingly. If the Marines were unable to conduct the peacekeeping role for which they had been sent, he reasoned they would be sitting ducks for terrorists expressing their anger with the American presence. Instead of forcing the situation or doubling down, and despite criticism for being weak, abandoning Lebanon, and reducing American credibility, Reagan voted for the door.

Yet Reagan’s pulling of the plug was not done in a vacuum simply considering the Marine Barracks’ bombing, or the contextual factors in Lebanon and the Middle East. He made the decision to withdraw because of the broader geopolitical context. Reagan’s overall aim was to project strength at home and abroad. His 1980 campaign and subsequent policy initiatives as president reflected this. As a candidate, he asked the American people whether they were better off than they were four years before. The electorate responded in the negative. Reagan focused in his first term on ensuring that when he asked the question again four years later, voters would respond in the affirmative.

Becoming embroiled in a nasty conflict in the Middle East would be a distraction from the country’s ability to project strength, especially when the realistic prospect for success with a limited commitment of time or resources was small.

To accomplish this Reagan focused on restoring American strength. This took various forms: economic, military, diplomatic, and social. Economically, Reagan sought to create jobs, restore incentives in the private sector, underwrite a military buildup, and outspend the Soviets in an arms race. Militarily, Reagan aimed to restore the capability and readiness of the Armed Forces following Vietnam. This included a bold new initiative known as the Strategic Defense Initiative to defend America from potential Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile attacks. Diplomatically, Reagan proposed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviets, termed the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and later called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Socially, Reagan worked to restore American resiliency, reinforced through these other mechanisms. Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon makes sense given these other priorities. Becoming embroiled in a nasty conflict in the Middle East would be a distraction from the country’s ability to project strength, especially when the realistic prospect for success with a limited commitment of time or resources was small. Removing the Marines, however, allowed Reagan to cut his losses and project strength through these other venues. That served his objectives at home by focusing on improving conditions for the American people ahead of the 1984 presidential election. It also met his goal internationally by expediting the collapse of the Soviet Union, realized shortly after his presidency’s end.

President Clinton made a similar decision for withdrawal of American forces ten years later, this time from Somalia. “Higher priorities” drove his decision. Clinton’s priorities were elsewhere. Having campaigned on the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” he did not want to derail his efforts to make good on reviving the economy by heavily involving the country in a mission whose purpose he did not fully embrace. Internationally, Clinton also had other higher priorities. Less than a month before the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident, Clinton had presided over a historic signing of the Oslo Accords between the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. The president intended the accords to be the launch pad for a permanent peace deal between the two parties within five years. It was a signature achievement that required a great deal of diplomatic effort, but much more would be necessary if Clinton hoped to deliver on a permanent peace deal, which he made clear he did. Meanwhile, the Bosnian conflict was a year old and the Europeans’ inability to handle it on their own meant U.S. involvement might be necessary.


The Weinberger and Powell Doctrines were likely still fresh in Clinton’s mind as well. Clinton did not see how it was in the United States’ national interest to become embroiled in a conflict in Africa. Somalia was a lawless country, racked by the whims of warlords who used the ongoing famine as a tool to remain in power. The country lacked the capacity to provide much support to American efforts to help. Further, after a year of intervention it was unclear what the prospects for success were. Mission creep had expanded the effort from a humanitarian mission into one that included hunting warlords, most famously Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Eighteen soldiers died in the October 3rd tragedy in Mogadishu, leading Clinton to reevaluate the operation he had inherited from his predecessor, President George H. W. Bush. Still in the first year of his presidency, Clinton zeroed in on his “higher priorities” and headed for the exits.

President George W. Bush made a much different choice in January 2007. He announced the U.S. would surge five additional combat brigades to Iraq, totaling over 20,000 additional troops. He extended deployments for forces already on the ground, appointed a new commander, General David Petraeus, and approved the implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy. The new objective aimed at protecting the Iraqi population, as well as providing time and space for political reconciliation between Iraq’s dueling ethnic factions. Bush’s announcement came after significant debate within the administration. As Meghan O’Sullivan, Deputy National Security Advisor at the time, later explained, Bush determined the surge was the only option that presented an opportunity for success.

Bush’s “fear of losing” would not accept any of these outcomes without a final concentrated effort to win the peace.

President George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, left, and New York Governor George Pataki, second from left, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., second from right, and New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen, right, look toward the fallen buildings during a tour of the World Trade Center, Friday, Sept. 14, 2001 in New York / Doug Mills, AP

Having already experienced the terror and loss of 9/11, Bush’s “fear of losing on my watch” provided a powerful impetus for doubling down to ensure a successful outcome. It had to be a powerful driver given the duration of the effort was nearing four years, significant lives and resources had already been expended, support at home was dwindling, and violence in Iraq was increasing. Furthermore, some military commanders recommended against increasing the U.S. military presence, concerned that they would simply become additional targets for insurgents, foreign fighters, and Al Qaeda in Iraq. In his public speeches, Bush continually demonstrated that he did not view these as sunk costs, but rather as reasons why the country had to achieve victory in terms of a secure, stable, democratic Iraq that was a U.S. ally in the Middle East and in the War on Terror. Victory would honor those who had already given their lives and ensure their deaths were not in vain. Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and in the Middle East also concerned Bush, as did the growing safe haven for Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists in Iraq. Losing meant that the U.S. might have to live with these dynamics, and meant a bad legacy. Bush’s “fear of losing” would not accept any of these outcomes without a final concentrated effort to win the peace.

President Obama followed suit during his first year in office, committing additional U.S. troops to a surge in Afghanistan. Having cast the war in Afghanistan as the “good war” while on the campaign trail, Obama took office with an invested interest in winning the war. As in Iraq prior to the surge there, things were on the decline in Afghanistan as Obama assumed the role as Commander-in-Chief. Casualties began to increase around 2009 over that experienced from 2003-2008. Fighting and casualties spread geographically from the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan to which they had largely been confined, to the northern and even the western provinces. Corruption and poppy production were significant problems. Osama bin Laden remained on the loose. Al Qaeda members were small in number, but had a disproportionate effect through the use of sophisticated media and by training leaders of other organizations, such as the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban.

President Barack Obama meets with Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal / Souza, The White House

If Obama was going to follow through on his characterization of Afghanistan as the “good (but unfinished) war,” there was one logical approach—win. At that point, the surge, accompanying shift in strategy, and Sunni Awakening had ostensibly produced a remarkable turnaround in Iraq, significantly reducing the amount of violence. The obvious question became, “Can we replicate the surge in Afghanistan, with similar levels of success?” General Petraeus indicated that Afghanistan was not Iraq, yet he, Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal, Secretary Gates, and Secretary Clinton all supported a surge that would include both military members and civilians. They also supported a counterinsurgency approach which, like in Afghanistan, was a strategy change. The young president was flanked by surge supporters among most of the pertinent civilian officials in his administration and his key military commanders, all with more experience in foreign affairs than he. Having cast the war as the “good war,” it would be hard to do anything other than what was thought necessary to win. Given that his team recommended a surge and painted a dire picture of success apart from it, Obama could follow their recommendations or reframe the war. He chose the former.

Alternative models emphasize the influence on public opinion of casualties, the type of mission in which U.S. military forces are engaged, and the prospects for success. The first suggests the American people will not tolerate high levels of casualties. Low public opinion follows on the heels of mounting casualties and eventually triggers a presidential decision to disengage. The second alternative posits the U.S. policy aim is actually the more important factor. When the objective is to restrain foreign military aggression, the American people will be more supportive despite casualties than when the goal is internal political change or humanitarian relief. By extrapolation, a president would be less likely to engage, remain involved, and expand a military mission whose aim was internal political change if he was very concerned about public opinion. The third alternative argues that what really matters in terms of securing broad public support for a war effort are the prospects for success. If they are high, people will back the mission; if not, they will not. Thus, a president wanting to secure public support for escalating the use of force needs to convince the public that it will be successful and then ensure it is. These alternatives shed light on the important influencers of public opinion and how that may impact presidential decisions.

The alternative models fall short, though, in credibly explaining why Presidents Reagan and Clinton chose a path of deescalation. The “casualty” model would correctly predict a decision to remove the troops, but its causal explanation would be that public opinion would turn against the effort due to the attack against the Marine barracks, leading to withdrawal. Yet, there is no specific evidence that Reagan was particularly concerned about public opinion. Furthermore, it was not until several months after the Beirut bombing that Reagan made his decision. The “objective” model also falls short because it suggests that if a president is concerned about public opinion s/he would do well to avoid sending U.S. troops other than on an operation aimed at restraining foreign military aggression against America. So Reagan should not have sent the Marines in the first place according to that model. The “success” model has some relevance. People concerned about the likelihood the Marines would accomplish their intended mission would not support increased operations and would advocate withdrawal. The problem with the “success” model is it allows room for the president, even when the chips are down, to present his/her case regarding mission necessity and likelihood of success to the American people. If s/he could do so in a persuasive fashion, the “success” model outlined here would anticipate public opinion rallying around the president. But Reagan did not do this. He struck a middle ground, neither making the case for success being right around the corner nor conceding defeat. For Reagan, “projecting strength” in the most important areas was crucial. In the 1980s, that meant “projecting strength” toward the Soviet Union, not against terrorists and their sponsors in Lebanon.

As did Reagan, Clinton valued a view of national security interests. However, in Clinton’s case it was not about “projecting strength,” but about conserving political capital for “higher priorities.”

President Clinton was reportedly more concerned about public opinion than was Reagan. Thus, the “casualty” model may have greater relevance to the Somali case study. Yet in that case the “casualty” model overlooks the role that Clinton himself had in the precipitous drop in public support when he announced soon after the “Black Hawk Down” tragedy in Mogadishu that he did not know why we were there, what the objective was, or whether it would be successful. The “objective” model suffers from the same problem in this case study as in the Lebanon one. It would not expect Clinton to have sent troops at all. The “success” model is generally on target with the decision in the Somali case, but takes a more myopic view in explaining the presidential decision process than does the “higher priorities” model. The latter is more effective in explaining Clinton’s cost-benefit analysis as he weighed continued or increased engagement in Somali against his other domestic policy initiatives and competing international events such as robust efforts to establish a Mid-East peace deal and the conflict in Bosnia. As did Reagan, Clinton valued a view of national security interests. However, in Clinton’s case it was not about “projecting strength,” but about conserving political capital for “higher priorities.”

The alternative models are also less successful than the “fear of losing on my watch” and “good war” models for the two escalation cases. The “casualty,” “objective,” and “success” models are useful in explaining the ebbs and flows of public opinion during the Iraq War. However, they do not explain Bush’s decision for the surge. In fact, given the low public support for the war at the time Bush made his decision, all three alternative models would have forecast a troop withdrawal. Casualties were mounting from 2004-2006, leading up to the surge decision. The objective had transformed from one initially aimed at preempting foreign military aggression to one of internal political change. And, prior to the escalation decision, the prospects for success looked bleak. Only the “fear of losing on my watch” model adequately explains why President Bush ramped up U.S. involvement in the face of stiff odds and growing calls to bring the troops home after four years involvement in Iraq.

In the Afghanistan case, the alternative models face similar challenges in explaining why Obama replicated the Iraq surge. The “casualty,” “objective,” and “success” models would have predicted a drawdown in the American troop presence. Casualties were mounting and violence was spreading across the country. Like in Iraq, the objective had morphed. No longer was the main effort focused on eliminating Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that had harbored them, but on buttressing the fledgling Afghan government. A relatively quiet war that the U.S. had managed for six years with limited resources and less than 20,000 troops had retaken center stage in the American press and success was in doubt. The top military commanders said that without significant troop increases the cause would be lost. The three alternative models again fail to accurately explaining why President Obama opted for a second surge in the face of these dynamics. The “good war” model, however, provides a convincing rationale as to how candidate Obama’s foundational assumption about the war led to his decision as president.

From left, President Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter appear together at a dedication ceremony in Dallas, Texas. April 25, 2013 / David J. Phillip, AP

Although the logic presented herein makes a strong argument for the “project strength,” “higher priorities,” “fear of losing on my watch,” and “good war” models in these four case studies, testing them is important for establishing causality. In each case, the way to do this would be looking at presidential (and campaign) speeches, budgets, and secret deliberations to determine the truth. Specifically, to make an informed assessment, one would need access to the alternative decisions leaders considered in each case study and, ultimately, to the rationale for the path taken. This is a logical though difficult route to verify which model is most explanatory. Deliberations are obviously subject to declassification restrictions, and would therefore be more likely to be helpful in Reagan’s and Clinton’s cases. Once a person gained access to those documents, s/he would be able to test theories versus the alternatives to the extent that the information was completely captured or the president clearly articulated the reason for his decision.

Alternatively, a researcher could seek access to the presidents (other than Reagan) who are still living, and to his closest advisors to conduct interviews. This approach would be similar to that repeatedly and successfully employed by Bob Woodward. The challenges would be at least twofold: gaining access and getting to the truth. Bob Woodward obtained nearly unprecedented access, having built his reputation over a long time and through his journalistic connections. It is highly unlikely for someone else to enjoy the same level of access, which would be crucial to successfully testing the models. Second, sitting presidents and even past presidents and other policy makers have agendas. A researcher would run into issues involving framing, selective memory, conflicting perspectives, and legacy protection, even when talking to honest individuals.

These challenges do not render the effort unworthy or hopeless, but a researcher would need to be aware of and mitigate these impediments by checking with enough of the relevant actors and available documents to fact check and inform his/her analysis. One way to do this would be to analyze the sequencing of presidential speeches and deliberations with corresponding events. For instance, did Reagan’s desire to use the economy to build the military and project strength vis-à-vis the Soviets influence his decision to abandon a commitment not central to U.S. interests? Did he think it could make America look weak if he continued the military presence in Lebanon and suffered additional setbacks, especially after doubling down? Likewise, did efforts to broker a Mid-East peace deal or the worsening situation in Bosnia truly influence Clinton’s decision to pull out of Somalia? Did Bush’s sense that he had a special “charge to keep” and had to act proactively against terror threats lead to his decision first to invade Iraq, then to give a last ditch effort to realize elusive victory through the surge? Did Obama feel constrained by his campaign speeches, the support for the surge among his more experienced military commanders and civilian cabinet officials, and by the mini-surge in Afghanistan that Bush began in the eleventh hour of his presidency? Entering the testing phase with questions like these would help a researcher get the most relevant answers to determine which, if any, of the models discussed in this paper is most appropriate in explaining the four decisions. Future research could expand beyond these case studies to then determine the general usefulness of the models across all of America’s foreign policy history. A person could also research other countries and their leaders to explore the applicability of these models internationally.

Understanding presidential decisions for and against increased force in ongoing conflicts is a significant and important endeavor. The implications include the impact on future decisions to commit troops in the first place—such as in Syria. National security decision making also affects civil military relations, as well as the balance between executive and congressional powers. Finally, as escalation and de-escalation involves either mission creep or the need to adjust policy aims by taking an appetite suppressant, understanding its dynamics will illuminate leader perceptions, the difference between wartime realities and prewar expectations, and the impact on the U.S. debt and the American public.

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