2021 Theses Doctoral
No Wider War: Leaders, Advisors, and the Politics of Wartime Decision-Making
Why do military interventions fought for limited aims persist beyond the point at which original objectives have been achieved, or when prospects for military victory diminish in the face of severe setbacks or sustained stalemate? Dominant explanations for the duration of limited military interventions overlook the ways divergent recommendations from civilian and military advisors – and the political implications of their dissent in the domestic arena – can drive wartime leaders away from strictly rational calculations when deciding whether to intensify military efforts or sue for peace. Existing bureaucratic politics perspectives offer descriptively rich accounts of the positions taken by inner circle advisors, but they often struggle to explain how executives aggregate advice they receive into particular wartime decision-making outcomes.
To address these shortcomings, this dissertation develops and tests a bureaucratic bellwether thesis, which posits that chief executives will make wartime decisions that satisfy the preferences of “bellwether bureaucrats” within their inner circle: those politically salient military and civilian advisors whose opposition to the executive’s choices would prove especially damaging domestically should their dissent spill over into public view. Although senior military advisors command inherent bargaining advantages during early wartime deliberations, the bureaucratic bellwether thesis expects their internal leverage to dissipate as battlefield setbacks accumulate. During an intervention’s later stages, executives will forge compromises that keep on board those senior diplomatic and civilian defense officials capable of mobilizing dovish or hawkish opposition among elites within their own political party. This is especially true when these advisors offer recommendations that deviate from the perceived prerogatives of the institutions they represent, such as chief diplomats endorsing escalation or senior defense officials advocating disengagement. Such “against-type” position-taking can send salient signals to outside elites about the intervention’s prospects, particularly when these advisors reverse their prior position on escalation during earlier decision points. The efforts of executives to keep these bellwether bureaucrats on board will often result in incremental adjustments to wartime policies in ways that prolong warfighting and postpone peace.
Drawing on newly available archival materials and author-led interviews with senior policy practitioners, this dissertation uses traditional case study methods and Bayesian process tracing to evaluate the bureaucratic bellwether thesis against alternative explanations for 24 wartime decision-making outcomes in the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. By developing falsifiable propositions that eluded earlier scholarship in bureaucratic politics, this dissertation interrogates the unitary actor assumptions underpinning rationalist explanations for war duration and contributes to the ongoing renaissance in the study of leaders and their advisors in shaping foreign policy outcomes.
This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2026-09-29.
More About This Work
- Academic Units
- Political Science
- Thesis Advisors
- Betts, Richard K.
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- October 6, 2021