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.
First, we're not talking here about a one-off raid, but a sustained air campaign against numerous hardened sites. We may need Special Forces or ground troops to verify that the nuclear facilities have in fact been destroyed.
Second, it's hard to see Iran backing down in the face of an air campaign, and submitting to a program of intrusive inspections. More likely they will retaliate, against Israel, or in the Persian Gulf, escalating the war. The campaign, for example, may require operations against Iranian naval vessels to protect oil routes.
Third, once the bullets start flying, American opinion would probably shift in favor of escalating the war and fighting for regime change. In wartime, Americans often see the struggle as a crusade to punish evil and protect freedom and democracy--requiring the grandest of objectives.
The 1861-65 Civil War began as a limited campaign for reunion, and ended as a righteous cause to emancipate the slaves.
The same story held true in the 1898 Spanish-American War, which started out as a mission to free Cuba from Spanish rule, and concluded with the conquering of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
The United States entered World War I in 1917 in large part to protect its neutral rights, and ended the war fighting a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
In World War II, Americans started out supporting majestic war aims including unconditional surrender and regime change--and these goals became more strongly entrenched over time.
The original objective of the 1950 Korean War was to save South Korea from invasion, but soon enough, American soldiers were on the march, fighting for regime change in North Korea.
But wasn't the 1999 Kosovo War restricted to airpower? Yes--but only just. When the campaign started in March 1999, Clinton ruled out the use of ground troops. By June, however, NATO forces were actively preparing for an invasion of Serbia, before Milosevic suddenly caved.
In any case, battling a demonized theocratic enemy in Iran, intent on wielding nuclear weapons, would stir America's crusading spirit far more than a humanitarian war to save Kosovo Albanians.
So Obama would have two options. He could keep the Iran War restricted or he could escalate. If the president limited the goals of the war, he would face fierce resistance from frustrated hawks. After all, if the Iranian regime is such a grave danger that military action is required, how can the theocrats be allowed to stay in power?
Consider the example of the 1991 Gulf War. Bush senior decided to fight a limited war to liberate Kuwait. Once Desert Storm began, however, well over 70 percent of Americans wanted to escalate the war and overthrow Saddam Hussein. By 1992, 69 percent of Americans thought that the Gulf War wasn't a victory because Saddam was still in charge.
Phase IV: Quagmire
What if U.S. troops end up marching on Tehran? Here, public support would probably hold up until the Iranian regime collapses. There may even be a brief moment of exhilaration as American forces reach the capital. When the statue of Saddam fell in Firdos Square, Baghdad, on April 9, 2003, Brit Hume declared on Fox News: "this transcends anything I've ever seen." Pictures of the toppling of the statue were shown repeatedly all day (once every 4.4 minutes on Fox from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.).
But as the so-called "Pottery Barn Rule" goes, "You Break It, You Own It." The Iran War would shift to a nation-building and counter-insurgency operation. Whatever course the stabilization mission took, Americans would very likely see it as a failed quagmire. The United States has engaged in dozens of nation-building operations in its history, from southern Reconstruction after the Civil War, to Somalia. Virtually every mission was seen as a debacle. If you like nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, you'll love nation-building in Iran.
Phase V: Regret
The war is likely to end in regret. Obama would be damned if he limited the campaign to air strikes, and damned if he escalated and fought for regime change. Any restricted operation that left the regime in power might face criticism from a growing lobby of hawks. Meanwhile, regime change means nation-building, and stabilizing Iran would be about as popular as stabilizing Iraq.
So, whether we're looking at Truman and Korea, LBJ and Vietnam, Reagan and Lebanon, Clinton and Kosovo, George W. Bush and Iraq, or Obama and Afghanistan, the pattern is clear: war rarely pays a long-term political dividend. Even military success does not guarantee much domestic benefit. President George H. W. Bush won convincing victories in Panama in 1989 and in the Gulf War in 1991, and then promptly lost his bid for re-election against Clinton in 1992.
Military failure against Iran would be politically catastrophic for Obama. At the same time, it's not clear that success on the battlefield would offer much of an enduring advantage. War could give a short-term boost to Obama's approval ratings, but in the long-term, it would be more likely to destroy his presidency than save it.
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