After the 'Shellacking,' Could a Strike on Iran Save Obama Politically?

>Earlier this year, Sarah Palin offered  President Obama some advice on bolstering his domestic standing: "Say he played the war card. Say he decided to declare war on Iran ... things would dramatically change. If he decided to toughen up and do all that he can to secure our nation and our allies, I think people would perhaps shift their thinking a little bit."


Daniel Pipes elaborated on this thesis in a piece titled: "How To Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran." According to Pipes, Obama needs a game changer to alter his image as a "lightweight, bumbling ideologue." Attacking Iranian nuclear facilities would "prompt Republicans to work with Democrats, make netroots squeal, independents reconsider, and conservatives swoon."

Looking ahead to the 2012 election, Elliott Abrams wrote in The Atlantic's debate series on "The Point of No Return"--Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story for the magazine--that "[t]he Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one."

Needless to say, bombing Iran for a domestic political payoff is an obscene idea. So let's assume that Palin, Pipes, and Abrams see such payoff as a side benefit, rather than something that ought to enter the president's calculus.

Still, it's important to consider the fallout from war with Iran because the ripple effects at home could have dramatic consequences for the president's broader agenda. And this is no academic question. In "The Point of No Return," Goldberg revealed how seriously Israel is contemplating an attack on Iranian nuclear sites--a move that could ultimately draw in the United States. The prediction market intrade.com puts the odds of an overt U.S. or Israeli air strike against Iran before the end of 2011 at about 15-20 percent.

With last week's grim midterm election for his party, Obama may appear politically weaker than ever. Are Palin, Pipes and Abrams right? Would Obama benefit domestically from war with Iran? Based on the experience of recent wars, and drawing on evidence from my new book How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can predict how Americans would respond to military action against Iran. U.S. opinion may follow five distinct phases: division, rally, crusade, quagmire, and regret. Ultimately, war with Iran offers few domestic political benefits and a great many risks.

Phase I: Division

In the build up to war with Iran, the American public would probably be divided over the wisdom of fighting. For example, as war loomed against Iraq in 1990-1991, Americans were far from a nation of eager warriors. Many experts predicted a long and bloody struggle, with thousands of U.S. casualties. Public opinion was evenly split on whether to fight Iraq, or give sanctions more time. In January 1991, the Senate authorized the use of force by a knife-edge vote of 52 to 47.

A decade later, in early 2003, polls showed majority support for invading Iraq. But Americans were wary about an attack without allied support, and close to half of the public supported efforts to achieve U.S. goals without war.

And, if you go further back in history, it's usually the same story. Americans were deeply divided about entering World War I before Woodrow Wilson grasped the sword in 1917, and isolationist sentiment was strong right up until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

As war with Iran approached, we would probably see a similarly wary mood. One recent poll  showed that 65 percent of Americans favor "taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons." But most other polls suggest that public support for war is closer to 50 percent, and when people are given the option of using force or trying "economic and diplomatic efforts," 63 percent favor a non-military path.

Phase II: Rally

The outbreak of war with Iran would spark a sudden and dramatic shift in public opinion, as Americans rallied around Obama. Palin, Pipes, and Abrams are right that war would boost the president's domestic support--at least in the short run.

In January 1991, when Operation Desert Storm began with a massive air campaign against Iraqi targets, Americans immediately united behind the war effort. The media shifted into cheerleading mode. The public began to see President George H. W. Bush as a cross between Lincoln and FDR. Bush's approval ratings jumped 18 points to 82 percent. Impressively, after taking the nation into war, there was a 27-point surge in Bush's score for "making progress" at "keeping the nation out of war."

Similarly, after 9/11, public support for George W. Bush spiked, and a huge majority of Americans backed a global campaign against terrorism. CBS anchor Dan Rather was often castigated by conservatives as a totem of the "liberal media," but Rather announced: "George Bush is the president ... [wherever] he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

Again, when the first shot was fired in Iraq on March 20, 2003, doubts about a unilateral military campaign faded, and Americans supported their commander-in-chief. As the Abrams tanks began rumbling across the desert, about seven in ten Americans backed the invasion.

Phase III: Crusade

War with Iran would probably start with the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites. And for Pipes, this is essentially how it could end--a key selling point. "Were the U.S. strike limited to taking out the Iranian nuclear facilities, and not aspire to regime change, it would require few 'boots on the ground' and entail relatively few casualties, making an attack politically more palatable."

But it's doubtful that the Iran War could be restricted to air strikes.

Presented by

Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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