Political Science and Iran

Two really good posts in the Monkey Cage lately I really liked.  First, Michael Tesler explains how conflict with Iran will almost certainly not bolster Trump’s approval.  Most importantly, public opinion, especially on foreign policy, is an elite-led phenomenon.

Voters are most likely to rally around the flag when there is bipartisan elite support

The “rally around the flag” effect happens when international crises increase support for the president at home. This effect is a major reason some might suspect that attacking Iran would be politically beneficial for the president.

For example, the approval ratings of presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush immediately surged after their respective military interventions against Iraq. Trump seemed to literally want Americans to rally around the flag when he tweeted a picture of the American flag soon after Soleimani’s demise.

But not all military crises trigger rally effects. Political science research shows that rally effects are most likely to occur when there is bipartisan support among political elites for the president’s actions.

This was true even for the enormous outpouring of support for George W. Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cindy Kam and Jennifer Ramos showed that the patriotic rally behind Bush eroded after Democrats ended their moratorium on criticizing the Republican president.

Of course, Democratic elites have not provided any grace period before starting to criticize President Trump. Democratic leaders quickly condemned the president for ordering the airstrike against Soleimani without informing them, saying that the administration lacked any broader strategy for dealing with Iran.

The absence of bipartisan support for a deeply polarizing president’s actions makes it highly unlikely that attacking Iran will rally Americans in support of Trump. [emphasis mine]

Nor would a larger war against Iran increase Trump’s odds of reelection. In fact, research suggests it would have the opposite effect.

Douglas A. Hibbs’s famed Bread and Peace model argues that two factors explain most of the variation in presidential election outcomes since 1948: The positive effects of real disposable income growth and the negative effects of cumulative U.S. military casualties from unprovoked, hostile deployments of American armed forces in foreign wars.

This research suggests that the Democratic Party paid an electoral price for committing U.S. forces in Korea and Vietnam. The Iraq War also appeared to undermine support for George W. Bush’s reelection. Despite narrowly winning in 2004, Bush won fewer votes than expected for an incumbent president in a growing economy.

I imagine Trump thinks conflict with Iran helps him electorally and with the public.  But, I’m pretty sure Trump and his advisers are not exactly considering the social science on the matter.

Also in the Monkey Cage, Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth N. Saunders write, “War with Iran is still less likely than you think”

Well, not less likely than think, but if you read my Facebook feed, you’d think we were going to have ground troops in Iran any day now. Anyway…

But as other analysts have noted, fears of World War III are overblown. Even after this escalatory move, many factors that made war between the United States and Iran unlikely in June remain unchanged. There will no doubt be consequences — but general war remains unlikely…

Although the killing of Soleimani was a deliberate act by the United States, much fear about escalation between the United States and Iran surrounds the potential for a conflict spiral through miscalculation.

Fortunately, this type of escalation is rare. As Dan Reiter explained here at The Monkey Cage during a spike in tensions with North Korea two years ago, “powder kegs” rarely explode into war by accident…

Retaliation by Iran is not the same as war

It’s important not to move the goal posts for how we define war. At the same time, it’s also key to distinguish tit for tat between the United States and Iran from a general war involving ground troops.

This is not to deny the risk of a damaging retaliatory move from Iran that may result in American casualties and lead to long-term complications for the United States in the region.

So, the situation on many levels: not good!  But, that’s still a long way from genuinely being at war.

%d bloggers like this: