ABSTRACT Leaders with a military background are interesting for conflict studies both because of the relevance of their background and because nations frequently turn to them when conflict is likely. Despite their prominence, we lack a sound understanding of when former soldiers come to power and how they influence international politics. I argue that leaders with a military background have higher (perceived) competence in foreign policy than civilians and when future conflict is likely this advantage can be critical to leader selection. Since incumbents can influence the level of future conflict by bargaining more or less generously with the enemy today, they have incentives to manipulate foreign policy in order to influence issue salience to their advantage. Using a new data set on leader backgrounds I find empirical support for my main proposition: In political regimes where former soldiers have a competence advantage over their challengers they are three times more likely to engage in international conflict if the economy is performing below average. However, when the economy is performing well, so that the incumbent does not need foreign policy to remain in office, this difference in conflict propensity disappears. These findings have implications for other sources of perceived competence and other forms of conflict as well.