An “October Surprise” Attack on Iran Would Be Political Suicide for Obama
Jacob Heilbrunn promotes the flawed assumption that a military attack on Iran would give Obama an electoral boost:
President Obama could bomb Iran in late October to try and ensure that it does not develop nuclear weapons. A devastating strike would create an upsurge of patriotism in America and fully neutralize Mitt Romney’s contention that Obama is a foreign-policy wimp. It could allow Obama to sweep to victory in November.
Obama certainly could do this, but there shouldn’t be any illusions that it would give him a significant advantage in the election. There probably would be a surge in support for Obama at first, since this seems to happen at the beginning of almost every military engagement, but it wouldn’t last. I suspect a very war-weary public would sour on the war very quickly once it became apparent that attacking Iran involved more than a few days of casualty-free airstrikes. If Obama did not seek Congressional authorization for attacking Iran, he would be correctly accused of arbitrarily and hastily plunging the country into a new war. If he suddenly sought Congressional authorization just before the election after years of appearing to be somewhat reluctant to take military action, he would naturally be attacked for trying to start a war for political reasons. Even some Republican hawks that favor attacking Iran would perceive it as a desperate political move, which is what it would be.
In the event that Iran retaliated in any significant way, or if there were many American casualties suffered during the attacks on Iran’s facilities, the public would begin to recognize that Obama had made a serious error in judgment and had entangled the U.S. in yet another conflict in the Near East with no discernible end in sight. The spike in oil prices and the related market panic that would follow would mean several weeks of bad headlines before Election Day. All of this would be rightly be considered proof that Obama should not be trusted with another term, and it would cause people to forget why they were ever worried about Romney’s foreign policy views. Once Obama starts a war with Iran, it is hardly effective to warn that Romney might start one in the future.
Half of the Obama campaign’s attack on Romney is that he is inexperienced and dangerously aggressive. Ordering an attack on Iran would give Romney an opening to portray the conflict as a result of Obama’s incompetent Iran policy, and he would have a point. At the moment, Romney’s attacks on Obama’s record have remarkably little merit and no political effect, but if Obama started an unnecessary and avoidable war it would give him a target that even the hawkish Romney wouldn’t be able to pass up. Obama currently has an advantage over Romney on foreign policy because more Americans trust his judgment than don’t. Ordering an attack on Iran for what would appear to be undeniably domestic political reasons negates that advantage and contradicts the main theme that Obama’s campaign wants to promote, which is that Obama is supposedly the candidate that ends wars rather than starts them. That isn’t really true, but it would become obvious nonsense if Obama plunged the U.S. into a major unnecessary conflict.