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Inconsistent Interventions? The Effect of Operational Feasibility on U.S. Presidential Military Intervention Decisions

Matthew D Eberhart, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Why is there apparent inconsistency in U.S. presidential military intervention decisions when cases exhibit similar characteristics that other scholars have argued should be determinant, such as the magnitude of the conflict, economic ties, or domestic political support? For instance, President Clinton committed troops in Haiti (1994) but not in Rwanda (1994); and likewise, President George H.W. Bush intervened in Somalia (1992) but not in Bosnia (1992). Previous studies have held an implicit assumption: if the demand for action is high enough, an intervention will occur. This study moves the operative element of the decision calculus from demand to feasibility, attempting to answer the primary research question: what impact does operational feasibility have on U.S. presidential military intervention decisions? This research identifies what I call “feasibility factors,” which are based on military planning considerations and provide observable measures for the expectation of intervention success. Successful interventions are those that achieve the intervention mission within a short time horizon at acceptable costs. Using a mixed methods design incorporating both Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and an examination of National Security Council and presidential meeting archives, the study finds that the seemingly inconsistent behavior disappears when feasibility is included. Demand for intervention is necessary, but insufficient; only when there is enough demand and the operational feasibility factors are positively aligned do presidents intervene. This study provides three main contributions. First, it argues for feasibility’s inclusion in future intervention-focused studies. Second, this work elucidates the most prominent feasibility concerns for the policy community: the conflict type, whether there is a regime to intervene on behalf of, the enemy’s organization, and the logistical accessibility of the crisis region. Finally, this work provides an alternative logic for why presidents choose inaction despite overwhelming demand for intervention.

Subject Area

International Relations|Political science

Recommended Citation

Eberhart, Matthew D, "Inconsistent Interventions? The Effect of Operational Feasibility on U.S. Presidential Military Intervention Decisions" (2019). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI13814472.