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Trump Just De-escalated in the Middle East. Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised.

  • Andrew Payne
| Jan. 11, 2020

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” — Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.

In his address to the nation Wednesday, President Trump backed away from potential war with Iran. Instead, in a letter to the United Nations, the United States signaled that it was willing to enter “serious negotiations” without preconditions.

By taking the off-ramp, Trump triggered a tentative sigh of collective relief from those anxious about continued conflict in the Middle East. But recent research suggests that this apparent de-escalation in an election year should come as no surprise.

Presidents have incentives to avoid conflict in an election year

As my recent article in the journal International Security discusses, elections powerfully constrain presidential decisions about war and peace. As both commander in chief and holder of the highest elected U.S. office, presidents balance the competing interests of national security and political survival. When considering the use of force, they want any course of action they choose to carry minimal electoral risk.

Since voters bear the financial and human costs of war, they don’t usually reward incumbents who enter wars recklessly. As a result, presidents have good political reasons to think twice before putting troops in harm’s way. As President George W. Bush once joked to troops in the Middle East: “You don’t run for office in a democracy and say, ‘Please vote for me, I promise you war.’ ”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Payne, Andrew.“Trump Just De-escalated in the Middle East. Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised..” The Washington Post, January 11, 2020.

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