How Much "War" We Talking About?

Viewing recent U.S. airstrike on key Iranian military figures through a political lense

Publisher’s Riff

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There is an understandably high level of anxiety around what happens next after the assassination-by-drone of General Qasim Suleimani, arguably the most powerful military commander in Iran and definitely the most influential in the region.

Let’s first establish that we’re not headed for World War III - because we already went through that. That was the multi-front/multi-continental/global “War on Terror” response to 9/11, plus invasions and subsequent occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan. Not that it will happen in this case, but World War IV would be next.

Most will worry deeply or imagine a World War scenario, especially since there are few - if any - cooler heads in the White House (and if you’re Black Twitter, you’ll find ways to laugh about it). Managing that anxiousness as events unfold will be important and necessary. One way of doing that is by focusing less on whether or not the United States and Iran engage in full-blown, all-armies-deployed kinetic warfare and more on the political and economic calculus behind every decision being made from here on out. Some factors to consider …

Conventional … or Not

It is very likely, especially now, that tensions and conflict will escalate in the Middle East in a big way. However, it is also a high probability that we won’t see a full-scale conventional war between these nations for practical reasons. For one: Iran’s military, while large in terms of manpower, is technologically ill-equipped to take on the very advanced U.S. military. As this Military Times analysis notes …

Iran's military forces total roughly 545,000 active personnel and 350,000 reserve personnel, including about 125,000 men within the IRGC, according to the Strauss Center at the University of Texas, Austin. But while its total force strength is quite large, the quality is limited by an inability to purchase Western technology and severe economic sanctions.

However, Iran is in a position to compensate that lack of kinetic “quality” by being creative and using what they have, as noted in the National Interest …

Iran pursues a deterrent-based military doctrine premised on three types of capabilities: an expansive ballistic missile arsenal, asymmetric naval warfare (particularly the threat of closing down the Strait of Hormuz), and ties to non-state militant groups.

Iran has already shown the U.S. how much damage it can inflict through non-conventional means. How the Trump administration responds depends on how much appetite it has for those kinds of casualties and how much appetite it supposes the American public has for that kind of warfare. Typically, when conflicts aren’t decisive and conducted in an asymmetrical or “guerilla-style” manner, the American public becomes much more anxious. Of course, war always go sideways. It’s an unpredictable business and a sequence of contained strikes could expand into something much larger.

Political Factors

The big question is how much does the current political environment shape this conflict and the decisions made here on out. What makes the Trump administration’s decision suspect is the political timing. Any form of war with Iran, of course, helps shift the narrative away from the stain of impeachment while prompting Senate Republicans to engineer a very short, swift Senate trial. It’s important to watch his approval ratings (per FiveThirtyEight) …

There is a major election coming up that he will want to win at all costs, particularly as he’s engaged in what amounts to unprecedented stress testing of the Constitution. He may already be worried about displayed splits within his White evangelical base. His very White voting base, overall, is shrinking, as the Wall Street Journal notes recently …

Working-class, white voters are projected to decline by 2.3 percentage points nationally as a share of eligible voters, compared with the last election, because they are older and therefore dying at a faster rate than are Democratic groups. As those voters pass on, they are most likely to be replaced by those from minority groups or young, white voters with college degrees—groups that lean Democratic. That means Mr. Trump will have to coax more votes from a shrinking base—or else find more votes in other parts of the electorate.

Or, simply, just suppress and purge millions of voters systematically as Republicans have already been doing.

In addition, he did say this about President Obama before the 2012 election …

This worries historian Michael Beschloss, author of Presidents of War who just discussed this with Vox, quite presciently, only days before the assassination strike …

My point is that the door is open, especially if you have a president who dominates both houses [of Congress], and possibly even if he only dominates one.

What the whole history of this shows is that presidents fabricate incidents that are counterfeit to get us into war. They can get us into war to improve their own popularity, and they know that’s a very quick way of getting your numbers up and winning elections.

Donald Trump himself, in 2011, tweeted repeatedly that Barack Obama would get us into a war to get reelected. Now, I think that’s a very dangerous thing in the mind of a president to connect war with winning elections.

Trump and his advisors may be also keeping in mind that, historically, wartime presidents always win re-election, as historian Ron Feinman points out

James Madison, the War of 1812, reelected in 1812
Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, reelected in 1864
Woodrow Wilson, World War I, not at war but nearing it, reelected in 1916
Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II, not at war but nearing it, reelected in 1940, and then at war, reelected in 1944.
Lyndon B. Johnson, using the Vietnam War issue through the Gulf of Tonkin, elected in 1964
Richard Nixon, Vietnam War, reelected in 1972
George W. Bush, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, reelected in 2004

This list does not include James K. Polk, who chose not to run for reelection AFTER the end of the Mexican War in 1848; William McKinley, reelected AFTER the Spanish American War’s end, in 1900; Harry Truman, who chose not to run in 1952 during the Korean War; Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose not to run during the Vietnam War in 1968; and George H. W. Bush, who was triumphant during the Persian Gulf War, but then lost 18 months later for reelection in 1992, due to the bad economy and the candidacy of Ross Perot helping Bill Clinton to win in a three way race.

We could, perhaps, include Barack Obama on that list since, technically, he was still overseeing the War in Afghanistan during the 2012 election - even though it wasn’t as prominently featured in the public discourse at the time.

Economic Factors

Iran clearly isn’t in a position, economically, to take on a major war, as BBC shows here

Iran's GDP growth rate (November 2019)

Is the United States? It depends on how war is perceived in this context: as an economic drain or as an economic boost. Keep in mind that U.S. GDP has been quietly sliding and weaker under Trump than Obama …

GDP growth chart

Nor is the stock market under Trump performing as well as it did under Obama and George W. Bush …

The manufacturing sector, a key indicator, has notably weakened due to the tariff clash with China, reports Business Insider

A key gauge of US manufacturing activity dropped to its weakest level since the global financial crisis in December as a tit-for-tat trade dispute between the Trump administration and China dragged on.

The Institute for Supply Management said on Friday that its index fell to 47.2 last month, a low not seen since June 2009, as new orders and production both weakened sharply. Economists had expected the index would come in at 49. Readings below 50 indicate contraction.

"This is a seriously weak report, and we see little chance of a sustained near-term recovery," said Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Or, could there be rather cynical thinking inside the White House that a war carries both political and economic benefits. Interestingly enough, economist Tyler Cowen poses this argument back in 2014, “The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth” …

Counterintuitive though it may sound, the greater peacefulness of the world may make the attainment of higher rates of economic growth less urgent and thus less likely. This view does not claim that fighting wars improves economies, as of course the actual conflict brings death and destruction. The claim is also distinct from the Keynesian argument that preparing for war lifts government spending and puts people to work. Rather, the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right — whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects.