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What Is Trump’s Strategy On Iran?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last week, U.S. officials announced that President Trump had authorized a drone strike that killed one of Iran’s most powerful military leaders, Qassem Soleimani. The move took many by surprise, including some within Trump’s own administration, and now the U.S. is bracing for retaliation from Iran and an escalation of conflict in the region. More than 3,000 U.S. soldiers have already been deployed. And early Wednesday, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles targeting two U.S. military bases in Iraq.

Let’s first unpack what we understand Trump’s Iran strategy to be and the risks and challenges there. (How does it play with Republicans? His base? Can we expect this to be a unifying moment where Americans “rally around the flag” and his approval rating goes up?) Then, let’s turn to how this conflict could potentially change the dynamics of the Democratic primary.

OK, Trump’s Iran strategy. What do we know at this point?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): In terms of Trump’s Iran POLICY strategy, I’m not sure how much we know. We know his administration feels like it needs to get tough with Iran. And we know that any action by the Iranians in retaliation is likely to get a very aggressive response from the United States. (See Trump’s remark about identifying 52 sites in Iran to attack, including some of cultural significance.)

So his political strategy seems to imply that anyone who disagrees with killing Soleimani doesn’t care about defending U.S. troops and interests, which is not unlike how the Bush administration defended their policies in the Middle East in the early 2000s.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Trump’s Iran strategy is also one that is largely tinged by domestic politics. What I mean by that is that Trump made a really drastic decision when he decided to green-light Soleimani’s assassination, something Democratic and Republican presidents had chosen not to do for years. And if you go to the reasoning of “why?” I think you come out with the educated guess that Trump wanted to look decisive in the face of a real threat from an enemy. But the decision was a pretty extreme one that doesn’t necessarily have the interests of the stability of the region at its heart. It might have the interests of regime change at heart, but that is, of course, a controversial point of action, one that more hawkish Republicans (a la former National Security Advisor John Bolton) have tended to favor.

sarahf: And at this point, how have Republicans responded? Republicans in Congress largely seem to support Trump’s decision, right?

clare.malone: Well, even some Never Trumpers like it! It’s the return of the neo-conservative (early aughts, much?)

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted immediately after the attack, 84 percent of Republicans approved of the airstrike. Of course, 84 percent of Republicans would probably agree with anything Trump does — and on foreign policy especially, the political science literature argues that people form their opinions based on elite cues (specifically, the elites they already are inclined or disinclined to like).

clare.malone: But I think one thing that will probably bother Democrats and Republicans alike is the outpouring of nationalism and grief for Soleimani this week in Iran. That’s perhaps something the Trump administration didn’t anticipate.

sarahf: It is interesting, too, when you consider how much Trump criticized the Iraq War, even going as far as to attack George W. Bush during the 2016 campaign, and how he promised to prevent the U.S. from getting further entangled in conflicts abroad. And when you look at some of the Republicans who make up his base, there is evidence that these voters are a bit less hawkish or more isolationist than other Republicans. A Pew Research Center poll conducted during the 2016 Republican primary found, for instance, that Trump supporters were more likely than other GOP voters to say that “the U.S. does too much to solve world problems.” So that does make me wonder how this recent military action reconciles with his base. Do we have a sense yet of just how supportive the broader American public would be of a war with Iran?

clare.malone: I think this is the most interesting question at hand. I’m not sure that the “rally around the flag” effect that we’ve seen with actions like, say, invading Iraq in 2003, will hold in our age of extreme partisanship.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, there is a tension there. Some political science research has also found that the American public knows more about foreign policy, and holds more consistent (if broad) views on it, than it typically gets credit for. But I personally tend toward the hypothesis that voters will change their views on foreign policy to match the politicians they support on domestic issues.

clare.malone: You’re already seeing the partisan dividing lines; all the Democratic presidential candidates condemning the attacks; Republicans calling Democrats unpatriotic, a la former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley:

sarahf: This chart is from a story that our colleague Dhrumil Mehta wrote in September, but what stood out to me was that Americans seem more willing to support military action in Iran than anywhere else.

This is especially true if Iran’s nuclear capabilities are perceived as a threat. According to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted in June, 70 percent of respondents, including 82 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats, said they support sending U.S. troops to Iran to stop them from obtaining nuclear weapons.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, a lot of the polling we have on Iran is based on the premise of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, which wasn’t the reasoning behind the Soleimani attack. So we need more polling to really understand where Americans stand, as polling on Iran is somewhat difficult to interpret.

For example, in July, Gallup found that only 18 percent of Americans wanted to take military action against Iran, and 78 percent preferred diplomatic efforts. But 42 percent of that latter group said that the U.S. should take military action if diplomatic efforts fail.

perry: “War with Iran” tends to imply the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and a declaration of war from Congress. And if that is actually proposed, I think it will be fairly unpopular — regardless of whatever the polls say right now. The Trump administration is even saying this attack will not lead to a full-blown war (they may be wrong, but it still speaks to what they perceive as the political realities).

We know Americans don’t want another protracted conflict in the Middle East. Unless there is an attack on American soil by Iran — then the dynamics are different.

clare.malone: Yeah, I’m with Perry. The last two decades of American political life have been dominated by foreign intervention. Of course, the Quds force that Soleimani ran specializes in supporting more agile attacks on countries, aka terrorist attacks. And if a terrorist attack were to happen, especially on American soil, that could really shake up an election.

You’ve only got to look back at the 2016 primary to see an example of that. After the San Bernardino attack, Trump called for his “Muslim ban,” and I think more people may have found that palatable in part because there had just been an ISIS-inspired massacre in California. People are more likely to want punitive action when they are frightened and angry.

nrakich: I will be interested to see, though, if people (voters, the media, politicians — especially those who oppose Trump) start off skeptical of the administration’s intel on Iran and its decision to attack. It would make for quite a contrast with the Bush administration’s line about weapons of mass destruction, which the public initially accepted as a good reason to go to war in Iraq. This time around, though, Democrats don’t appear to be giving the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt on its assertion that attacks from Iran were “imminent.”

sarahf: So it sounds as if Trump’s calculus for handling the situation with Iran is that there has to be a perceived threat to the U.S. Otherwise, he risks entangling the U.S. in another drawn-out conflict in the Middle East, which, as Perry said, probably doesn’t have that much built-in support. Does that seem accurate? And if there is indeed evidence of a real threat, does that do well for him politically?

clare.malone: Sure, fear is the great motivator. But I also think that if it’s too obvious that they’re coming up with retroactive reasoning for an attack, that won’t pass the smell test with voters.

The interesting thing with Trump is that he hasn’t faced a whole lot of external crisis situations; often he is the maker of his own crisis.

perry: Trump can do a lot in Iran — as long as it’s not a “war” with the deployment of lots of U.S. troops.

sarahf: And considering Trump is not highly rated on his ability to respond in an international crisis to begin with, the situation in Iran could have a large upside for him, if it’s handled well.

perry: I don’t think there is an upside here for him. I tend to think that Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (who has been critical of the attack on Soleimani) is right. In my view, Trump won GOP voters in the primary and swing voters in the general who were wary of Bush-style Republicanism, which, of course, is tied to the Iraq War. Trump is better off talking about the economy.

Although, perhaps there is less downside for him focusing on Iran, as opposed to issues like repealing Obamacare or tweeting mean things about members of Congress.

sarahf: That’s interesting, Perry. It just seems like a step so extreme that one would think Trump has a greater Iran strategy at play. Although, there has been speculation that this might be a diversion to everything happening with impeachment. Which, whoa, if true. But let’s say this situation with Iran does continue to dominate headlines — how does this shake up the 2020 primary? As we’ve noted, Democratic candidates have been universally critical of Trump’s decision, so far. Does that change? Or what kind of positioning do we expect to see from the candidates? Does anyone aside from Biden, given his experience as Obama’s VP, stand to benefit?

clare.malone: I mean, I think Pete Buttigieg is trying to use this new dynamic as a way to play up his military service. But I’m not sure that’s going to track with voters, who still know he’s relatively inexperienced, compared to the rest of the top of the field. Bernie Sanders is certainly seeing his opening to point out that Biden was a proponent of the Iraq invasion in the early 2000s:

perry: So on the Democratic side, this is interesting. Many of the debates and the broader discussion of the primary are framed around, “Do you prioritize bold change or winning the election?” And that framing helps Biden. I’m not sure what the Medicare for All equivalent (bold policy that can be painted as electorally risky) is for Iran. The issue just doesn’t have the same dynamics. So this could be an issue where the non-Biden candidates can make arguments without being trapped in a dilemma over how their stances poll.

Sanders has really leaned into this issue by connecting it to his broader opposition to the Iraq War, as well as his view that the U.S. should be less eager to intervene abroad. Biden, by contrast, has struggled to reconcile his vote in support of the Iraq War. A voter in Iowa asked him about it on Saturday — and he said he opposed the war from the beginning, which is not accurate.

clare.malone: Yeah, that was a weird moment.

perry: So because the foreign policy lines are less clear, I think it’s an opportunity for the non-Biden candidates to challenge him in a fresh way. And it’s harder to imagine that Biden’s Iraq vote won’t come up in next week’s debate.

clare.malone: I think that there is definitely potential upside for Sanders: He can point out that he’s principled and anti-war, which the progressive base will like, but he has also pointed out that his policy stance of getting out of the Middle East is exactly what Trump promised. So, in some ways, he’s trying to showcase what he thinks is his general election advantage: a different kind of (populist or outsider) appeal to Trump voters.

nrakich: Yeah, I wonder how big of a role Biden’s Iraq vote will play. I feel like other candidates are seizing on it out of necessity — since otherwise, foreign policy is an issue where voters give Biden a big advantage:

perry: Whatever the electoral effects, I also basically agree with what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said yesterday. This conversation around Iran solidifies the idea that she (and Sanders) would be in a different party than Biden if we had a multi-party system. Biden and Sanders have really different perspectives on foreign policy — with the latter perhaps being the most serious anti-war presidential candidate in decades.

clare.malone: Yeah, and the fact that it’s not entirely crazy that a major party candidate could have an anti-war stance says a lot about how conflicts in the Middle East have shaped the American psyche over the past couple of decades.

sarahf: Is this what the conversation will center on among Democrats next Tuesday during the debate, Perry? If the conversation has less to do with Trump’s actions and more about Sanders’s anti-war stance in comparison to Biden, I wonder how that plays with voters.

perry: Voters don’t really know much about policy, and generally, the differences between candidates in the same party are hard for them to understand. That said, someone will be declared to have “won” the debate on Tuesday — and that kind of coverage can matter. The press is already covering Sanders like he’s surging. So a debate in which Iraq comes up a fair amount is one that may play to Sanders’s advantage. And it may be a disadvantage for Biden — especially if he gets flustered and is unable to just concede that he voted for the Iraq War.

But if the moderators and/or Biden turn the Iran questions into basically, “Do you trust Trump on foreign policy?” then yes, that’s less useful for other candidates.

sarahf: 🔥

At this point, it seems as if Americans’ feelings around heightened escalation with Iran are a bit of a black box. They’re unsure whether they approve of the drone strike. And their opinions on whether to intervene in Iran are largely tied to whether they perceive Iran as a nuclear threat, although that may change if Iran continues to be hostile to the U.S. So what will you be looking for as an indication that the situation with Iran has escalated to the point that it could have a real effect in 2020?

clare.malone: I think a lot of public opinion depends on how Iran chooses to respond to the assassination. There are many potential unknowns for how they’ll continue to retaliate, but definitely a few ways that would anger the American public enough to shuffle some dynamics in the presidential campaign.

nrakich: I think whether this stays in the news for a while or whether other stories (e.g., impeachment) overtake it will be something to watch — as will be whether the Democratic candidates continue to draw a sharp contrast with Trump on the issue. According to political science research, those are two of the rare circumstances when foreign policy actually matters in elections. And obviously, I’ll be watching for any changes in Trump’s approval rating, too.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.