Timothy T. Taylor Home Page
Resume
Journal of Economic Perspectives
Articles and Writing
Economics Textbook
Classroom Teaching
The Teaching Company
High School Pedagogy
Editing
Family
Contact

Articles and Writing

December 7, 1995
"Need a Political Lift? Then Send in the Troops"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
<< Back to 1995 menu

WE LIVE in cynical times, and so it is only to be expected that voters will wonder if President Clinton's desire to send 20,000 American troops to Bosnia bears some relationship to his campaign for re-election in 1996. As a young soldier told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, "To tell you the truth, it just seems that every time an election is coming up, all the presidents decide to do something big."

It does seem that Bosnia matters more to Bill Clinton in the year before elections. When running for president in 1992, he made political points by attacking George Bush for inaction in Bosnia, and called for air strikes and other steps to penalize the Serbian aggression.

But after the election, although the bombings and mass killings and ethnic cleansing continued in Bosnia, the Clinton administration did little until less than a year before the next election. Is this timing purely coincidental?

Of course, Clinton is not the first politician to use American troops in a way that raises questions about political motivations. Economists Gregory D. Hess and Athanasios Orphanides offer a recent study on the point in the most recent issue of the American Economic Review.

If armed conflicts are dictated by external events, Hess and Orphanides point out, then they should occur at random intervals. But if political factors enter into the decision about whether to enter or escalate and armed conflict, then conflicts might be more likely to occur in the year before a president is up for re-election. Conflicts would be especially likely to occur if the economy is also in a recession at that time, so that the president is even more likely to be looking for a political lift.

Hess and Orphanides compare a comprehensive list of international conflicts between 1897 and 1988 to the dates of recessions and election campaigns, and find that armed conflicts do seem more attractive to presidents who have reason to be concerned about re-election.

"The probability of conflict initiation or escalation exceeds 60 percent in years in which a president is up for re-election and the economy is doing poorly," they write. "By contrast, the probability is only about 30 percent in years in which either the economy is healthy or a president is not up for re-election."

Some recent examples that fit this pattern include Reagan's invasion of Grenada late in 1983, Carter's attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980, Ford's response to the seizure of the Mayaguez in 1975, and Nixon's decision to mine the Vietnamese ports early in 1972.

Of course, the Hess and Orphanides study, like most historical studies, does not offer easy judgments on the present situation. The economy hasn't been in recession for more than four years. Perhaps America would be headed into Bosnia regardless of whether Clinton's next election is 11 months away.

It might also be that politics is just pushing Clinton toward doing the right thing. I do believe that the United States should have done more in these past few years to hinder and suppress the violence in Bosnia, and given the present situation, I think sending U.S. troops is appropriate.

But even for those who support sending troops in this case, the possibility that American military force is being deployed on a political schedule raises two concerns.

One problem is that if political motivations are playing a role in the Clinton administration's willingness to send troops to Bosnia at this time, then politics is also likely to infect U.S. strategy and tactics. But if there is too much focus on whether tomorrow's headlines are negative, or next week's polls show a downward blip, then U.S. soldiers in Bosnia will be putting their lives on the line for a mission with a reduced probability of success.

A second concern involves the constitutional separation of military powers. Alexander Hamilton explained the point in the Federalist Papers by comparing the powers of the U.S. president and the king of Great Britain.

The president's power "would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces," Hamilton wrote, "while that of a British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies - all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." Thus, the Constitution names the president as commander in chief, but only Congress has the power to declare war, to raise and support an army and navy.

America has gotten into a bad habit of letting the president initiate the use of military force, while Congress stands around and snipes. But if we are worried that presidents may undertake military adventures for short-term political gain, and that the credibility of U.S. missions and the lives of American soldiers may be imperiled as a result, perhaps the best protection is to insist on the constitutional assurance that Congress must vote to declare war and spend money for any military operation of substance.

<< Back to 1995 menu