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War with Iran and Displaying “Strength”

Bob Wright offers a different argument for why war with Iran is more likely under Romney:

But the fact is that Romney is significantly more likely to get the US into a war with Iran than Obama is. Oddly, the main reason doesn’t have much to do with Romney’s own disposition toward war (which is unknown), or with the fact that his stated policies toward Iran are more hawkish than Obama’s. These things do matter, but not as much as this simple fact: Obama would be a second-term president and Romney would be a first-term president.

Second-term presidents think legacy, and nothing says legacy like peacefully and enduringly solving a problem that’s been depicted as apocalyptic.

That seems right to me, but Wright doesn’t really address the obvious counter-argument that Romney would be more cautious than Obama. The counter-argument would be that a first-term president interested in re-election would not plunge into an unnecessary and costly war that would likely sabotage his entire presidency and destroy his political standing at home. According to this view, Romney might pay his hard-liners lip service, but would otherwise just pursue additional sanctions and try to rein in Netanyahu. Adherents of this view would also say that Obama would be concerned to make sure that his legacy not be the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, and because he will have boxed himself with his past statements he will feel compelled to order an attack before he leaves office. They might also say that Romney is the safer bet to avoid war because he will be the novice in office and because he is a political coward unwilling to take the kinds of risks that starting an unnecessary war entails.

I don’t buy this counter-argument, because Romney’s judgment on foreign policy issues has already been terrible so far. What appears to be an unnecessary disaster-in-the-making to many of us could appear to be an opportunity to a new hawkish president. Romney is a political coward and a partisan conformist, which means that he will acquiesce to pressure from within his party to make bad decisions that satisfy the hawks in his party. If a new president sees war as an opportunity to solidify his reputation on national security rather than as an occasion for ruin, an exceptionally opportunistic politician would be more likely to favor military action than he would be to avoid it.

Romney might review U.S. history and conclude that presidents that wage unnecessary wars usually aren’t punished by the public (at least not right away). During the initial stages of such a war, Romney might enjoy short-term political benefits that presidents often receive from the decision to order military action. To the extent that he is able to portray the decision as a necessity (which it won’t be), he would probably be given the benefit of the doubt for a while, and the decision to attack would force members of the opposing party to side with or against his administration. It isn’t be hard to imagine how ambitious national Democratic politicians with an eye on the 2016 race would get on board with war against Iran, which could set up a field of Democratic presidential candidates as compromised on this issue as the ’04 field was on Iraq.

The campaign has shown that Romney tends to favor the hard-liners among his advisers in deciding his positions, so it is hard to believe that he would spend his first term consistently siding against them on a major issue. Romney’s administration will likely be filled with aggressive Iran hawks, and there aren’t likely to be many top officials urging restraint. Outside the administration, the Iran hawks in his party will push him to take action and never let him hear the end of it if he doesn’t.

Jack Balkin made a related point in the essay I discussed earlier:

Affiliated presidents also face enormous pressures — or temptations, depending on how one looks at it — to use military force to display strength, both to the outside world and, equally important, to their political base.

If Romney wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessor, he might opt for a dramatic, unwise course of action to demonstrate the “strength and resolve” that he claims to prize so much.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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