Traditionally, starting a war is a pretty one good way for a president to get reelected. It worked for George W. Bush, but his Iraq war was kind of a sequel to his war with Afghanistan, seen by Americans as a justified war after 9/11. The complications of his invasion were not totally understood by voters when they gave him a second term in 2004; he essentially got the benefit of the doubt. Reagan did some gunboat diplomacy and it served him well in his reelection. We’ll never know if Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion would have cost him the 1964 election. Teddy Roosevelt saw the Spanish American War as a good war, i.e. not too complicated, where America could flex its growing muscle and try the empire thing without too much cost. Much like our potential war with Iran, it didn’t have much in the way of plausible justification. Yet Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed great popularity.
The times though may be changing. Last night Donald Trump aborted three planned airstrikes on Iran while they were already in flight. Supposedly, this was because he was concerned about the reported 150 casualties that would have resulted from the strikes. (They didn’t brief him on this before authorizing the strike?) Most likely, Trump just got cold feet.
Or it could be someone on his staff looked at polling on the issue. For example, a May Reuters/Ipsos poll found that while half of Americans believe we will go to war with Iran within the next few years, 60% said the U.S. should not strike first. Also 61% of Americans still support the agreement negotiated between Iran, the Obama Administration, and many other countries to curb Iraq’s use of nuclear materials. Just 12% of Americans want us to strike first.
Iran recently shot down one of our drones near the Strait of Hormuz. It’s unclear whether it was done in international waters or not. Killing 150 people to avenge an attack on a bunch of metal does seem to be (forgive the pun) massive overkill.
It’s quite clear that Trump sees his 2020 reelection as essential and will do just about anything to achieve it. He’s already invited the Russians and other states (Norway?) to keep interfering in our elections, and Congressional Republicans seem not to care too. His reelection is literally do or die for Trump. If he can’t win reelection, then he may be charged for potential crimes documented in the Mueller report. But if he wins, the statute of limitations will pass, so at worst he’s charged for various state offenses. Starting a war with Iran is risky, but might be effective in ensuring his reelection.
Then maybe not so much. Trump is clearly no student of history, but it didn’t work well for George H.W. Bush, who ran a war against Iraq very successfully with a coalition of countries, yet still managed to lose reelection. If the 2004 elections had been held six months later, George W. Bush might not have won as the consequences of his botched Iraq war became more noticed and Americans turned decisively against it.
When it comes to armed conflict against a significant adversary, my bet is that Trump is mostly a paper tiger. He talks big about being ruthless with our enemies, but he seems to sense that running an actual war is something out of his league. To begin with, the senior leadership of his Department of Defense is largely gone. He has no Secretary of Defense, the acting one just quit and the acting-acting one is hardly the best person for the job. A president that actually managed his government would have filled these positions by now. Not Trump. He remains distracted and is unconcerned about tending to the mechanics of government. I think he senses that a conflict with Iran is better punted than acted on.
Why? Because he would actually be expected to manage the war and that’s hard and boring. It means convincing a reluctant Congress to fund it, which probably won’t happen. He would lose face and look weak. It’s much better, easier and most importantly less risky to punt on it, like he’s doing on North Korea, Venezuela or for that matter much of Central America. Many of his problems are caused by his neglect, i.e. refusal to actually govern. Governing a country at war is hard.
Reports suggest he’s already had open conflicts with John Bolton, his super-hawkish national security adviser who is openly salivating at the idea of a war with Iran. But when Trump acts on it, he’ll own it, not Bolton. Not that when it goes bad he won’t try to make others take the knee for it. But it paints a bad picture next year when he is running for reelection while this conflict likely becomes tit-for-tat actions instead. Any war or conflict with Iran will be a conflict of his own making. Remember that Trump belatedly called our Iraq War a mistake.
It’s much easier to tweet all day and make bullying noises, plus it avoids a lot of accountability. So I think he’s going to talk strong but ultimately do little in the way of a military response. I hope I’m right.