imagesEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elizabeth Saunders who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.

In this year of Iraq-related anniversaries, this summer marks the 10-year anniversary of the emergence of the insurgency, when many Americans realized the Iraq War would not be over any time soon. Would things have been different had Al Gore been president? The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics has a symposium that considers this question in light of Frank P. Harvey’s book Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence. Harvey makes the provocative argument that Gore would have initiated the war had he won the 2000 election, highlighting structural factors that would have been no different under Gore than Bush. The symposium includes responses from myself, Adeed Dawisha, John Ehrenberg, Bruce Gilley, and Stephen Walt [Editor’s Note: Cambridge has agreed to make the contributions freely available through 29 July 2013; you can access the html version via each contributor’s name or through the abstract page].  I encourage readers to look at the entire symposium, which presents both supportive and skeptical takes on Harvey’s argument.

My own contribution highlights one aspect of the Gore counterfactual that Harvey neglects – what kind of war would Gore have considered fighting in Iraq, and how would that strategy, in turn, affect the likelihood of his administration going to war in the first place?

As I argue in my book Leaders at War, presidents’ beliefs about the nature of threats influence not only whether the United States chooses to fight—the focus of Harvey’s counterfactual—but also how the United States intervenes, especially whether the intervention attempts to transform the target state’s domestic institutions or instead takes a more surgical approach. Leaders can be grouped into one of two categories: those who believe that threats come from other states’ domestic institutions, and thus are more likely to seek to change those institutions, and those who focus on external state behavior and thus prefer more limited intervention options. In the 2000 campaign, Bush made no secret of his preference for the surgical option and his disdain for nation-building, while during the campaign and in the run-up to the war, Gore repeatedly mentioned the importance of nation-building and following through in Iraq. This is not to say that Gore would have been any more successful even with a different strategy – in fact, his views on threats and strategy might have led him to avoid war. Intervention strategy cannot be separated from the decision to intervene in the first place: if you believe that a nation-building effort is necessary, but will be quite difficult, you may be reluctant to intervene at all. In Gore’s case, his views on nation-building and the difficulties of fighting in Iraq might have led him to stay out of Iraq, just as Bush’s embrace of a limited approach helped propel the US into war.

How might presidential beliefs influence possible future interventions in Syria or Iran? While a boots-on-the-ground operation seems implausible at this point, there are still a range of strategies the US might employ, from doing nothing to airstrikes to efforts in support of regime change. Yet even support for regime change can range from backing new leadership that will likely change little about the country’s underlying structure, to supporting full-scale transformation of the country’s institutions.

It is difficult to assess leaders’ beliefs in the absence of a paper trail from their pre-presidential years that shows how they viewed threats before they actually confronted crises (the method I use in my book). But based on the available evidence, Barack Obama seems to belong in the category of leaders who do not see domestic institutions as the primary source of threat, focusing instead on how states behave and how their actions affect US national security. His cautious approach to the upheaval in Egypt in 2011 and the limited nature of the US intervention in Libya suggest that any action in Syria or Iran will be highly restrained, and will not aim at anything like full-scale transformation or institutional change. This view of Obama fits with the many portraits of his foreign policy as realist. But it is useful to recall that not all presidents fit that description. If the two most recent elections had turned out differently, we might be discussing a different track record for US intervention policy, and different policy options for the future.