How Public Opinion Constrains the Use of Force: The Case of Operation Restore Hope


Most previous research on the influence of domestic politics on international conflict behavior treats public opinion as endogenous to political institutions, leaders’ preferences, or both. In contrast, I argue that public opinion is more accurately characterized as partially exogenous. I further argue that, partly as a consequence, public scrutiny can inhibit U.S. presidents from using force as a foreign policy tool, particularly when the strategic stakes in a dispute are relatively modest. The literature on domestic audience costs, in turn, holds that public scrutiny may enhance a democratic leader’s credibility in the eyes of a potential adversary, thereby increasing his likelihood of victory in a dispute. Yet, it also raises the potential political price of a bad outcome. Democratic leaders are therefore cross-pressured by the simultaneous advantages and disadvantages of public scrutiny. As a preliminary test of the theory, I conduct a plausibility probe of the influences of public opinion on the decision making of Presidents Bush and Clinton with respect to the 1992-1994 U.S. intervention in Somalia. I find that only by considering the constraining effect of public scrutiny can we fully understand these two presidents’ policies regarding Somalia.

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