Back in 2011, Donald Trump was merely a reality-show entertainer/Mitt Romney surrogate who had disgraced himself by accusing Barack Obama of not being born in the United States. He also tweeted the following prediction:
It might surprise you to learn that this did not happen. Obama was instead reelected, and approved a nuclear deal (along with the P5+1) with Iran. Trump, as president, then chose to withdraw from that deal.
The fact that Trump was wrong is not interesting — he’s wrong a lot, so much so that at this point it is the rule and not the exception. Furthermore, there is not a ton of evidence for the commonly articulated version of diversionary war theory. It says something that pundits call this the “Wag the Dog” scenario: If the best example one can find comes from a movie, then it’s not really all that likely, is it?
What is interesting, however, is that the tweet reveals Trump thinks presidents should start wars to get reelected. Because, like it or not, Trump is currently the president and, despite what some folks say, the president should be worried about polling in the low 40s despite a decent economy.
So, it is worth asking: Would president Trump begin a war to boost his chances of reelection?
A couple of candidate countries are on the horizon. At present, the Trump administration is applying “maximum pressure” campaigns on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Let us put North Korea to one side. Trump has invested way too much in his summits with Kim Jong Un to re-escalate now. Furthermore, precisely because of those summits, the maximum pressure does not seem all that maximum at the moment.
Iran is a different story. This month alone, the Trump administration has placed sanctions on the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and eliminated waivers for other countries to import Iranian oil. As the Financial Times’s Edward Luce noted last week, “As non-declarations of war go, Mr. Trump’s gauntlet comes very close to the edge. There is little — barring internal regime change — that Iran can do to comply.”
I will have more to say about the Trump administration’s questionable sanctions strategy later this week. Luce is not wrong about the attempt to back Iran into a corner. What does not seem plausible at all, however, is the president using force to escalate the situation. Starting a war in the Middle East seems (a) foolhardy and (b) the most conventional foreign policy choice that Trump could make. Furthermore, according to Axios’s Jonathan Swan, “In a closed-door meeting with Iranian-American community leaders last Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is ‘not going to do a military exercise inside Iran’ to expedite a regime change, according to three sources who were in the room.”
I confess that the administration’s Iran strategy flummoxes me. Trump might stumble into a conflict with Iran, but as a diversionary war tactic, it seems unlikely.
No, if the president wanted to start a diversionary war, I would put my money on Venezuela. For one thing, the president seems intrigued by the notion. We know that he floated the idea in 2017 in his conversations with Latin American leaders. We know that national security adviser John Bolton declared earlier this month that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well” with regard to Venezuela.
Venezuela has a few other advantages. It is in the Western Hemisphere. There is a large coalition opposed to the Maduro regime. And its military is less formidable than that of Iran or North Korea. I could see Trump’s hawkish advisers telling him it would be a slam dunk.
To be clear, I do not think this will happen. We are talking about low-probability events. It makes no sense to do this. But remember, we are talking about Trump. Sense is not part of the equation.