How public opinion constrains the use of force: the case of operation restore hope.

Author:Baum, Matthew A.

At some level, the political decisions preempt in these kinds of operations.... Everything that's done is political.--General Joseph Hoar, USMC (ret.) Former CINCCENT (1)

In early 1991, Somalia fell into a state of civil war, precipitating a catastrophic famine. (2) Almost two years later, in late November 1992, following a year in which the United States first resisted intervening altogether and then did so only relatively modestly, President George H. W. Bush decided to launch a large-scale, American-led military intervention termed Operation Restore Hope. Less than a year later, amid rapidly deteriorating public and congressional support for the mission, President Bill Clinton announced his intent to end U.S. involvement in Somalia.

A review of the myriad studies of the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention reveals numerous proposed explanations for the decision making of Presidents Bush and Clinton, including the rapid turnabout in the Bush administration's attitude toward intervention. While typically presented in the unique context of the Somalia case, most such explanations are merely case-specific variants of several of the most widely employed variables in the theoretical literature on the domestic sources of foreign policy. Such factors include bureaucratic politics and organizational routines (Allison 1969; Sagan 1993; Zegart 1999), the individual preferences, values, and characteristics of leaders (Larson 1983; March and Olsen 1998), electoral incentives (Gaubatz 1991; Smith 1996), and public preferences (Zaller 1994; Ostrom and Job 1986; Powlick 1995; Sobel 2001), including, in the last instance, the constraining effect of public opinion (Holsti 1996; Sobel 1993, 2001; Rosenau 1961; Powlick 1995). I argue that with one exception, these explanations provide only partial insight into the full range of U.S. policy decision making with respect to Somalia between 1992 and 1994. The exception is the constraining role of public opinion.

In this respect, the Somalia intervention exemplifies a more general pattern in presidential decision making. In this study, I develop a theory to explain the circumstances under which public scrutiny is likely to influence presidents in their foreign policy decision making. My argument refines previous theories concerning the influence of domestic political risks on crisis outcomes, allowing more nuanced predictions concerning conditions under which presidents are likely to be willing to use military force abroad. I argue that, unless a president is highly confident of success, an attentive public can, when the strategic stakes are relatively modest, inhibit him from undertaking risky foreign policy initiatives, including using military force. The political costs of failing are greater if the public is attentive because it will be more inclined to punish a president if it is watching closely when he falters than if it is uninterested or distracted. Moreover, this pattern is self-reinforcing. All else equal, a policy fashioned under intense public scrutiny is more likely to fail, because public scrutiny reduces the president's freedom to develop an optimal foreign policy, free from domestic pressure to compromise. This further raises the political risks associated with an attentive public. And when the strategic stakes in a foreign crisis are modest, a president is likely to weigh more heavily the potential political risks associated with a given policy, thereby making public attentiveness a potential constraining factor. Hence, unless they are quite confident of success, presidents are more likely to use force in low-stakes foreign crises when the public is inattentive. (See Baum n.d. for a game theoretic extension of the theory and large-N statistical testing.)

After explicating the theory, I illustrate some of its key elements through a case study of Operation Restore Hope, the U.S.-led multinational humanitarian relief operation in Somalia that spanned the G. H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations. Beginning with the former, I show that the fear of a domestic public backlash in the run-up to the 1992 presidential election inhibited President Bush from launching a large-scale U.S. intervention prior to November 1992, while reduced public scrutiny after the November election removed this important barrier to intervention. Despite a congressional joint resolution supporting forceful intervention, as well as popular and United Nations support for an aggressive response, the president resisted using ground forces until late November 1992, nearly two years after the famine began, and almost a year after it was widely publicized in the United States. I then present evidence that similar considerations of public opinion influenced Bill Clinton's Somalia policies as well. In the latter instance, despite the potential credibility-enhancing effect of generating domestic audience costs by attracting public scrutiny (see below), President Clinton, like his predecessor, appears to have sought to minimize the public profile of his Somalia policies.

The remainder of this study proceeds as follows. I begin, in the next section, by first defining my key causal variable--public attentiveness--and then explicating the theory underlying this study. I then derive several hypotheses from the theory, as well as a series of potential alternative hypotheses based on the most commonly cited explanations for U.S. decision making regarding Somalia. I turn next to a discussion of case selection and a brief historical background of the crisis in Somalia. I then present evidence that the constraining effect of public scrutiny influenced President Bush's decision making in important ways. Along the way, I also evaluate the aforementioned alternative hypotheses. After completing my review of the Bush administration's Somalia policies, I turn to a consideration of the influence of public scrutiny on the Clinton administration's decision making with respect to Somalia. The final section summarizes and concludes.

Public Opinion and the Use of Force

Defining "Public Attentiveness"

For purposes of this study, I define my key causal variable--the extent of public attentiveness--as the portion of the public paying attention to a given issue, for whatever reason, at a particular point in time. (3) I define attention, in turn, as selective processing of information about a given object, where selective implies a choice "to process specific sources of information and ignore others" (Kinchla 1980, 214; see also Wickens 1980; Navon and Gopher 1980). This means simply that directing one's focus more toward one thing requires focusing less on other things. Many studies (e.g., Page and Shapiro 1983; Neuman 1990) treat attentiveness as essentially analogous to salience, which in common usage implies a sense of importance or urgency (e.g., Smith, Bruner, and White 1956; Page and Shapiro 1983; Epstein and Segal 2000), and which research (e.g., Page and Shapiro 1983; Monroe 1998) has shown to be positively related to governmental responsiveness. By my definition, the former construct is, at minimum, a necessary precursor of the latter. After all, one must attend to an object in order to determine whether it is personally important. Yet, for this very reason--because public attentiveness is a leading indicator of the likelihood that an issue will become salient--the distinction between these two constructs is of little practical importance for my theory. (4)


Fearon (1994) develops the logic of the domestic audience cost argument. Domestic audience costs are the domestic political punishment a leader suffers if she publicly threatens a foreign actor and subsequently backs down. Such costs arise because a leader's domestic audience is likely to view backing down as a sign of incompetence (Guisinger and Smith 2002). Fearon argues that because leaders of democracies are accountable to their domestic populations, they are better able to generate audience costs than are authoritarian leaders. This allows democratic leaders to send credible signals of resolve to potential adversaries. Such costs arise whenever a leader makes a threat, but leaders only suffer their negative consequences if they back down. Recognizing that the democratic leader has tied her own hands by raising the political price of backing down, the adversary is more likely to believe the democratic leader's threat, and so acquiesce without a fight. Hence, by generating audience costs, a democratic leader increases the likelihood that she will win a confrontation without having to resort to using force.

My argument differs from existing theories of domestic audience costs in two principal ways. First, I argue that audience costs are not always worth the domestic political risk they engender, and hence, leaders will sometimes prefer to avoid them, especially if the strategic stakes in a given foreign crisis are relatively modest. And second, I argue that leaders cannot perfectly control the processes through which audience costs are, or are not, generated. I explicate both differences, and their implications, in greater detail below.

Fearon's theory and most other arguments regarding domestic audience costs (e.g., Schultz 1998, 2001; Smith 1998) emphasize their positive value. Their logic implies that a president, faced with a potential conflict, should always prefer to maximize public awareness of the crisis--the source of domestic audience costs--as that enhances his credibility and thereby improves the odds that an adversary will back down. I relax this assumption in order to highlight the inherent tradeoff that frequently confronts leaders between enhancing their credibility by attracting greater public scrutiny, and the resulting increased potential political price of backing down or otherwise failing. I do so by linking the audience cost argument to the broader literature on crisis bargaining. If a leader makes a threat and the...

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