The Risks of Foreign Policy as Political Distraction

If you’re an embattled head of state, deflecting criticism through foreign adventure carries seductive appeal: Outside threats can cause people to pull together. As King Henry IV advises his son Hal, the future king, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days.

What better way to patch over domestic discord than to take on a common enemy?

In the real world, many historians interpret the Crimean War of 1853-1856 as an effort by French Emperor Louis Napoleon to buttress his support among French Catholics by fighting the Orthodox Russians. Karl Marx wrote that the emperor “has no alternative left but revolution at home or war abroad.” In 1857, President James Buchanan sent troops to reassert federal control over the Mormon regime in Utah, and in the words of one confidant, drown out “the pipings of Abolitionism” with the “almost universal excitement of an Anti-Mormon Crusade.” Shortly after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904,  the Russian minister of the interior said: “We need a little, victorious war to stem [the tide of] revolution.”

In the summer of 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton confessed on television that his romantic relationship with a White House intern amounted to “a critical lapse in judgment … a personal failure.” Three days later, with his presidency hanging in the balance, the administration announced airstrikes against suspected terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan, following the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Many observers claimed that Clinton had launched a classic diversionary war, or a use of force to sidetrack the media, whip up patriotic sentiment, and…

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