On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted a warning to Iran that an attack “on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” The threat comes days after the New York Times reported that Trump backed down from retaliating against Iran for downing a U.S. surveillance drone.
People have speculated about the reasons for Trump’s decision to back down, especially given his statement that the expected casualties from a U.S. strike weren’t “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” The most popular story is that Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, warned Trump that if he attacked Iran, “he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye,” according to the Times.
But with Trump’s new threat against Iran, some experts worry that the reverse may be true: Trump may be reluctant to exercise restraint again for fear of looking weak. Can he back down again without risking a loss in public approval?
Political scientists think about this in terms of “audience costs”
Political scientists suggest that presidents are constrained to follow through on their threats because they suffer “audience costs” — disapproval from the electorate — if they back down. Under this argument, voters disapprove of presidents who issue a threat and back down because doing so makes presidents appear less competent and harms the country’s reputation.
Recent research has sought to understand how leaders can reduce audience costs by providing new information or imposing economic sanctions rather than backing down entirely. Some political scientists even speculate that audience costs might be reduced for Trump because the political environment is highly polarized and people have stronger feelings about him than about past presidents. If true, then Trump is arguably insulated from audience costs among his base: He could easily back down from his new Iran threat without affecting his approval among Republicans.
Here’s how we did our research
In January 2017, we fielded a survey experiment on a sample of 1,991 Americans. All participants were prompted with a brief description of an international crisis scenario. Each participant was then randomly told that the U.S. leader in the scenario was one of three different individuals: Donald Trump, Barack Obama or a generic leader called “the president.” Participants were then randomly assigned to three different groups detailing actions taken by that leader in the crisis.
The first group was told that the leader (Trump/Obama/president) stayed out of the conflict entirely. The second group was told that the leader threatened military intervention but ultimately backed down without striking. The third group was similarly told that the leader threatened military intervention and backed down, but justified backing down on the basis of “new intelligence.”
Finally, we measured participants’ approval of how the leader handled the crisis.
Why Trump may not face disapproval for another Iran flip-flop
Our results show that Democratic and Republican citizens equally disapproved of Trump when he threatened to use military force but then backed down.
However, when Trump’s decision to back down was accompanied by a justification claiming that there was “new intelligence,” he did not face any approval hit among either Democrats or Republicans. Regardless of partisan affiliation, Americans apparently perceive such justifications as credible and presidents who make use of new intelligence as more competent.
The results are telling for the current Iran crisis because the scenario we used read surprisingly similar to Trump’s first threat against Iran. As Trump recounted the decision-making process via tweet, the administration began by deciding to intervene militarily against Iran. Subsequently, the president received new intelligence. Finally, on the basis of this information, Trump backed down. Our study suggests that Trump could just as easily avoid public backlash for reneging on his latest Iran threat by issuing another justification via tweet.
Why voters might still punish Trump for flip-flopping
Our experiment did not include any tests for the consequences of reactions from congressional reactions, news media or international audiences. This is an important caveat, as Trump’s justifications for backing down are rarely the final word on the matter.
People often look to elites and news media to evaluate whether backing down from a threat was the right decision. Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle have already criticized Trump for appearing weak by issuing a threat and reneging. Similarly, Republican news outlets such as Fox News appear divided on whether Trump’s last decision signaled weakness.
The subsequent actions of Iranian elites, a naval commander boasting of Iran’s ability to shoot down more drones and President Hassan Rouhani’s claim that the White House’s follow-up sanctions show it to be “mentally retarded,” might make Trump’s previous decision to backtrack on striking Iran appear even weaker in retrospect.
If a public narrative that Trump showed weakness by backing down takes hold, this might mean that voters on both sides off the aisle might start to distrust Trump’s justifications and disapprove of him for backing down a second time.
Nonetheless, we believe this is highly unlikely. So long as “Fox & Friends” assures its viewers that Trump “knows more than we do” and Republican politicians such as Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.) laud Trump for being “measured and thoughtful when it comes to Iranian provocations,” Trump may have all the political cover he needs to flip-flop on his latest threat.
Miles M. Evers (@mevers90) is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University whose research focuses on corporate power, international security and U.S. foreign policy.
Aleksandr Fisher (@aleksandrfisher) is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University whose research focuses on foreign propaganda, authoritarian information politics and international democratization.
Steven Schaaf is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University whose research focuses on comparative judicial politics, authoritarian politics and political contention.