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Should We Intervene? How What Leaders Know They Don't Know Shapes the Military Interventions They Choose Open Access

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Does leaders’ level of uncertainty shape their support for military intervention? For example, when uncertain about their adversary’s intentions, are leaders more likely to assume the worst and intervene or hesitate until they can obtain more confident estimates? Do they favor an intervention that maximizes their expected payoffs but is based on ambiguous information, or a status quo that offers lower but more certain payoffs? When does confidence in estimates matter, and how?My dissertation explores the causal impact of experienced uncertainty—decision-makers’ incomplete confidence in their estimates—on military intervention preferences and choices. An extensive literature already addresses the role of uncertainty as a necessary condition for conflict, shaping the baseline likelihood of conflict as well as the process of arriving at a decision. Yet, with few exceptions, scholars have generally assumed that the experience of uncertainty has little direct bearing, and certainly no systematic impact, on decision-makers’ intervention preferences and choices. Building on an emerging security and multidisciplinary literature, my dissertation makes four main theoretical claims. First, experienced uncertainty directly shapes military intervention preferences and choices. Second, this impact is systematic, transcending actor attributes and context-specific features. Third, experienced uncertainty’s impact on intervention choices depends on its level and type: High levels of uncertainty rooted in probabilities—ambiguity—favor non-intervention; uncertainty rooted in the range of possible outcomes and their payoffs—fundamental uncertainty—favors intervention. I show that each type of uncertainty generates mutually-reinforcing rational, bureaucratic, political, and cognitive pressures that collectively point toward particular choices. Fourth and finally, state leaders may recognize the impact of experienced uncertainty on others, and try to manipulate it strategically to their advantage. The challenge they face is that, if they misdiagnose the type of uncertainty their adversary experiences, they may hasten the very outcome they wish to avert.To explore the impact of experienced uncertainty as a causal variable, I employ a small-N, comparative case study approach. Empirical chapters analyze a series of recent and high visibility cases—U.S. decision-making with respect to potential intervention in Iraq (1991-2003), Iran (1979-2013), and Syria (2007), and Israeli decision-making with respect to Iran (2006-2013), Lebanon (2000-2006), and Syria (2007). These case studies demonstrate the importance of experienced uncertainty as a causal variable and highlight a range of useful and sometimes counterintuitive implications for foreign policy and military strategy.

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