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Trump wants a deal with the Taliban. Will it hurt him at home?

Our research looks at how Americans view hawks and doves.

- February 28, 2020

The United States and the Taliban may finally be on the cusp of a peace agreement. Pending a week of “violence reduction,” the two sides plan to sign an agreement that will pave the way for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of getting out of America’s wars in the Middle East, but many commentators note that since his election, he has often acted as a foreign policy hawk — quick to threaten war, rather than discuss ways to de-escalate tensions. He has surrounded himself with hawkish advisers and carried out hawkish policies such as the recent strike against a top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

So why is Trump seeking peace with the Taliban? After all, polls suggest that the U.S. public remains relatively comfortable keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and there is a substantial risk that the Taliban will cheat on the agreement.

The U.S. may be close to a peace deal in Afghanistan. Here are 3 big takeaways.

The domestic politics of peace gets complicated

Part of the answer likely stems from Trump’s desire to fulfill old campaign promises in an election year.

But while lots of leaders would like to make peace, extending an olive branch can carry substantial domestic risks. The public may fear that the enemy will not hold up its side of the agreement. And Americans may conclude that their leader is an extreme pacifist who will put U.S. security at risk.

This is where Trump’s reputation as a hawk could provide benefits. Some scholars have argued that “it takes a Nixon to go to China” — meaning that hawks who try to make peace actually get a better domestic reception than doves making a similar move.

Could Trump’s reputation as a hawk actually help with the domestic politics of peace with foes like the Taliban? Based on our research in the American Journal of Political Science, the answer seems to be yes.

This recent poll shows how Americans think about the war in Afghanistan

How we did our research

We fielded a survey experiment in April-May 2017 on a sample of 1,200 U.S. adults via YouGov, using propensity score matching to produce a sample representative of the U.S. population with respect to gender, age, race and education. Subjects read about a hypothetical president in the year 2027, and the narrative randomly described him as either a hawk or as a dove (and, independently, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican).

Our scenario involved China, which Americans have long viewed as one of America’s “greatest enemies.” Participants read about a hypothetical dispute in the Arctic, as well as details about China’s government and military power.

We told half of the respondents that the president announced a conciliatory policy toward China, removing U.S. troops and canceling Arctic military exercises. The other half read that he was sticking to the status quo.

Next, we asked subjects whether they approve of how the president is doing his job, plus questions to measure why they felt that way. Finally, we described the result of the president’s gesture — China either reacted with friendship, or by taking advantage of the United States — and measured approval one more time.

Peace is domestically risky, but less so for hawks

Overall, our experiment showed that participants disapproved of leaders who pursued reconciliation over the status quo.

But we also found that pursuing reconciliation resulted in much larger penalties for doves than for hawks, all else equal. Withdrawing troops led to a 35.4 percent surge in disapproval for a dove — but increased disapproval by only 12 percent for a hawk. The hawk’s advantage is thus more than 23 percentage points; that is how much less public disapproval hawks suffer for trying to make peace, compared to doves.

This hawk’s advantage persisted even when we told subjects how China responded. Predictably, subjects punished both hawks and doves when China took advantage of the United States — but doves much more so. When China cooperated, the dove was still penalized, but the hawk was rewarded — the only time we saw the president get an approval bump.

We further studied why the hawk has a public opinion advantage. We found that when hawks pursue conciliation, voters are more confident that reconciliation is in the national interest, and more likely to see the president as a foreign policy moderate (as opposed to an extremist).

In November 2019, we fielded a follow-up study on a sample of 1,455 U.S.-based respondents recruited via quota sampling using the company Lucid, to see whether Americans cared whether the foreign leader was a hawk or a dove. We found that our subjects were generally more disapproving of reconciliation when the foreign leader was a hawk, because they did not trust that the foreign country would stick to its side of the bargain.

If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, will its military contractors stay? That’s not clear.

Will Trump’s hawkishness help at home?

What can our findings say about domestic reactions to Trump’s Taliban dealings? Perhaps surprisingly, to the extent that Americans see Trump as a hawk, he may be in a better domestic political position to withdraw from Afghanistan than a leader who might be more of a foreign policy dove (such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders).

Even if the Taliban deal disintegrates, Trump would likely face less domestic blowback than a President Warren or Sanders would. If the Taliban sticks to its promises, Trump may actually see an approval bump, although this might not happen, given high levels of polarization. Our research suggests that this is because voters are more confident in the wisdom of withdrawals when hawks propose them, and because they might approve of Trump revealing himself as a moderate rather than a warmonger.

At the same time, the Taliban leadership’s violent — and hawkish — reputation raises the risk of domestic disapproval. Our follow-up research suggests that Americans are wary of peace agreements with foreign hawks, because they suspect their promises to be insincere.

One possibility is that Trump will end up asking the Taliban for deeper concessions to reassure voters. But the big question is whether Trump’s hawkish reputation is enough to offset public skepticism about a peace deal with the Taliban.

Jessica L.P. Weeks is associate professor of political science and Trice faculty scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Michaela Mattes is associate professor of international relations at the University of California at Berkeley.