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Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

Trump Sees the Political Value of War. He's Wrong.

History indicates that attacking Iran wouldn’t help the president politically, regardless of how the war goes.

John Bolton advocated the Iraq War. Now he’s back in the White House.

John Bolton advocated the Iraq War. Now he’s back in the White House.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

If Donald Trump is currently wondering about the potential domestic political effects of a U.S. war in Iran, the answer is pretty clear: Don’t do it.

It’s certainly possible that Trump could benefit from a “rally around the flag” effect if war breaks out. But it’s by no means a sure thing. Political scientists have found that, as Richard Skinner put it: “Usually the rally-round-the-flag effect requires opposite-party elites to embrace the war (or at least not criticize it).” What’s important about that finding is what it doesn’t include. It turns out that whether a foreign crisis goes well or not isn’t really what determines the domestic political reaction. So for example George H.W. Bush got a huge bump in his approval rating when the Gulf War was won quickly and decisively – but so did Jimmy Carter when American hostages were taken in Tehran in 1979.