Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

Thanks to Phil Arena, I saw two tweets from Andrew Exum today (both highly recommended blogs, by the way) that caught my eye:

I wonder if Mitt Romney’s “no negotiations” stance actually strengthens the hand of the Obama Admin. as it negotiates with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:57 AM
In a way, Romney is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop in negotiations with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:58 AM

As it happens, I just finished making revisions a “conditionally accepted” paper (this one) that relates pretty directly to this question (it’s also a topic dealt with in my dissertation and hinted at here, but gated): how does the threat of leadership change affect an incumbent’s international bargaining fortunes? Specifically, the question here is how the threat of Romney (more hawkish than Obama?) winning the presidency affects what Obama can get out of negotiations with the Taliban now.

What does this paper have to say about it? For the most part, the answer to this question turns on two things: (a) the extent of differences between the successor and the incumbent and (b) just how sensitive the incumbent’s electoral fortunes are to bargaining outcomes. I won’t get too heavily into the details of the model, but if we take it that Romney would be more willing to continue the war in Afghanistan than Obama (which we’re going to take the “no negotiations” position to represent), then we’ve got an intriguing possibility: something the paper calls “preemptive appeasement.”

Essentially, preemptive appeasement is softening one’s bargaining position in order to bolster a pliant incumbent in office, forestalling the rise of a more resolute successor that one would rather not deal with. If Romney will fight longer than Obama and the Taliban believe that playing ball with Obama will keep him in office through the next election, then they might well do so—trading some concessions now to increase the chances that Obama stays in office in return for extracting a better deal in 2013 than they would against Romney.

Of course, if they don’t think Obama can be bolstered in office with concessions—or if his reelection becomes a foregone conclusion–then their strategy will switch to one of getting what they can now, striking while the iron is hot, and the prospect of Romney waiting in the wings won’t have as much of an effect. Which is all to say that there may well be a pretty consequential connection between primary season, the pace of economic recovery, the general election, and the war in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned. I know I will.

5 thoughts on “Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

  1. A historical situation with which you are probably familiar (indeed may know the details better than I do) and which has perhaps some analogous features, but also various (complicating) differences, occurred in 1968 w/r/t the Vietnam war. Negotiations w N Vietnam in Paris were in the fairly early stages, iirc, at the same time as there was a presidential election campaign in the US (Humphrey v Nixon). Humphrey had broken w Johnson on the war in Sept 68, rather late in the campaign (in a speech in Salt Lake City) and indicated that he favored a bombing halt and deescalation. Nixon for his part said he had a “secret plan” to end the war but didn’t give details. So in this situation, if you’re N Vietnam or the US ally S Vietnam (Thieu), whom do you favor in the US election and what bargaining stance do you adopt or push for? Not too clear. Except: Nixon and Kissinger secretly, and traitorously I would argue, communicated to Thieu through third parties that he could expect a ‘better’ deal coming out of the Paris talks if Nixon were elected. Thieu thus did his best to make sure that no progress was made in the talks in the remaining days of the Johnson admin. Now if the N Vietnamese had known about Nixon-Kissinger’s communications w Thieu they presumably would have had an incentive to engage in what you call “preemptive appeasement,” making some concessions that would have given at least the impression of progress in the talks and presumably redounded to Humphrey’s benefit. But the N Vietnamese didn’t know. So bottom line, I’m not sure how ‘model-able’ this example is or precisely what it tells us. Except that Kissinger and Nixon were a**holes. But we knew that already.

    • This is a cool case, and, admittedly, one that I *don’t* know too much about. You’re right that it probably doesn’t fit with the assumptions of my model, though, especially in that there’s no incumbent to try to keep around into the future, unless we count party continuity (though Humphrey’s break w/Johnson makes that one tough). There’s also the issue of how the North interpreted Nixon’s plan to end the war—if they took it to be more hawkish than Humphrey’s de-escalation and bombing pause, then they wouldn’t have known *how* hawkish Nixon would be but that he’d still be less preferable to Humphrey.

      I guess, at that point, with an effectively lame duck incumbent and two potential successors, we’d need a story about how foreign policy successes for the incumbent might translate into electoral gains for a candidate of the same party. That, I think, would be pretty cool. We saw something like it ahead of Kennedy’s election, when Khrushchev refused to play ball with the outgoing Eisenhower administration over issues like FG Powers, hoping to deny Republicans a foreign policy win and diminish Nixon’s chances of defeating JFK. (I guess the Kitchen Debate was enough to convince Khrushchev that he’d rather not have Nixon to deal with in the future.) If I remember correctly, Khrushchev’s son says that K used to take credit for getting JFK elected and even sent a “you’re welcome” message sometime after his victory.

      Still, elections during ongoing wars are something I’ve been thinking about lately, and if anything (useful) should come of it, it’ll probably be up here at some point…

      • Interesting re Khrushchev and JFK (esp. in light of latter’s tough stance vs ‘world Communism’ during the ’60 campaign). I guess Khrushchev saw JFK as the lesser of two evils. This is also interesting in light of speculation that the Cuban missile crisis would have turned out much less well if Nixon had been the one in office then.
        Another case, not quite the same, is Reagan/Carter 1980 and the Iran hostages, when Iran, iirc, deliberately didn’t
        release the hostages until after Carter had actually left office. But that, again iirc, was not a case of trying to influence the election result so much as of wanting to deny Carter any kind of success in his final weeks of office. (I shd remember this more clearly, since I was a young adult [i guess that’s the right phrase for early 20s] at the time…)
        Anyway, I look forward to occasional further posts on elections during ongoing wars…

  2. Pingback: International security, week 1 | The Wolf Den

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