In an era of increased politicization of the military, there are powerful disincentives for commanders-in-chief to challenge the preferences of the senior military leadership. Even though presidents may have the constitutional “right to be wrong,” they require considerable political capital to test that proposition. Dominant normative theories of civil-military relations focus on ideal-type scenarios that do not reflect the messy, inherently political character of elite decision-making. A case study of civil-military dynamics during the Iraq War identifies four decision-making strategies that George W. Bush and Barack Obama used to avoid incurring a domestic political penalty for being seen to go against the preferences of the uniformed military. Drawing on declassified documents and dozens of interviews with former administration officials and top-ranking military leaders, the findings indicate that both administrations used these strategies during key episodes of civil-military friction in the Iraq War (the 2007 surge and the troop drawdown that followed). Scholars and practitioners should focus on strengthening civilian and military leaders' capacity to navigate the politics of national security decision-making and reconsidering conventional understandings of the apolitical role of the military.

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