After military strikes on Iran were recently called off, President Trump again appears to be caught between the interventionists in his administration and his instinct to avoid another major conflict in the Middle East.
Aggressive advisors—represented most prominently by National Security Advisor John Bolton—have repeatedly driven national security strategies that appear to conflict with the president’s foreign policy vision. Earlier this year, they drove a regime change strategy in Venezuela that ultimately failed and seemed to be on a different page in regards to the president’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea.
However, the more interventionist foreign policy that some within the administration are pushing threatens not only our nation’s best interests but also the president’s reelection in 2020. Different national and state-level polls conducted over the last year also show that the American people are wary of the potential of new endless conflicts overseas.
Additionally, post-election analysis indicates that the president’s more restrained foreign policy approach during the 2016 campaign contributed to his victory over Hillary Clinton. This all suggests that eschewing new wars abroad would be a more viable path to electoral support than the more aggressive foreign policy favored by many hawks in Washington.
Recent polling supports this conclusion. A majority of voters favor a more restrained foreign policy. According to polling conducted by Lake Research Partners for VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America, 54 percent of likely general election voters in key battleground states and Virginia’s second congressional district (a key bellwether of public opinion) oppose an attack on Iran. Conversely, only 29 percent support such a move.
The difference between supporters and opponents of an attack is most stark in key primary states New Hampshire, Nevada, and Iowa, where more than 62 percent of voters in each state are against aggressive military action. This is consistent with other polling conducted over the last year that shows most likely voters don’t think the post-9/11 world has been made safer by American foreign policy over the last two decades.
Another academic study suggests military casualties may affect how people vote. As a result of research conducted in 2017, political scientists Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen show that military casualty rates positively affected voting behavior in 2016 toward Trump.
Indeed, Kriner and Shen claim that “if three states key to Trump’s victory—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.” Their data seems to suggest that voters punish the party in power for what is seen as undue causalities abroad. The findings led them to warn that “if Trump wants to win again in 2020, he should be wary of amassing more casualties from overseas wars.”
As former House speaker Newt Gingrich recently observed, casualties always pose risks to political leaders. These risks, however, are particularly grave for Trump, as they would fall heavily on his political base. Therefore, the more interventionist approach advocated by some of Trump’s advisors and the foreign policy establishment could threaten the president’s reelection prospects.
However, there’s an easy way Trump can live up to his 2016 campaign promises—particularly those recommending a new path in the Middle East—and appeal to his base and new voters alike. He can make the case to them that he’s been the most restrained president in using military force since the end of the Cold War.
Unlike his three predecessors, Trump has avoiding starting a new war. American troop deployments and casualties overseas are also much lower than they were under Bush and Obama. Despite lower troop deployments, there has yet to be any negative impact on U.S. national security.
If he wanted to go with a bold gesture, the president could jump-start his campaign for a second term by changing the perception that his team is fomenting war with Iran. The most striking way to do this would be by removing Bolton and replacing him with someone more supportive of Trump’s view that Middle East wars are for losers.
With Bolton gone, Trump would be free to chart a new course on Iran that would reduce current tensions while focusing on negotiating a new deal with Iranian leadership in Tehran. Additionally, Trump would benefit from making good on his promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria while continuing to be realistic about North Korea negotiations. Our wealthy European allies must also be held accountable for paying their fair share of their defense.
Keeping the country safe and out of unnecessary “endless wars” in the Middle East is good for America. As it looks like small margins will factor heavily again in the 2020 election, it would also be electorally advantageous for Trump. In fact, we’ve already seen Rep. Tulsi Gabbard appeal to Trump voters who wanted a more restrained foreign policy and would feel “betrayed” by any foray into new interventionism in the Middle East.
If he chooses to follow the foreign policy of reckless hawks, Trump may create an opening for one of the many Democrat challengers. A challenger who takes up the non-interventionist mantle who could outflank Trump as a representative of the people who always bear the primary cost of war, as opposed to the Washington establishment largely insulated from it. If, however, Trump uses the next year to make it crystal clear that America is done with endless wars, he could find himself with four more years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.