Events at the end of 2019 had an eerie resemblance to the ones at the end of 1979. So far as historical parallels go, the last time a US president tried to teach Iran a lesson while fighting a re-election campaign had lost handily at the polls (November 1980). What happened to Jimmy Carter back in 1980 may not happen to Donald Trump in 2020. But further US-Iran escalation may end up costing Trump dearly.
For one, the assassination of a top Iranian general isn’t playing out well domestically for Trump. General Soleimani wasn’t exactly a Bin-Laden or an Al-Baghdadi in popular American imagination; however, taking him out was significant enough to warrant a round of applause at home. But that didn’t happen, as Democrats called the killing dangerous and irresponsible, with some Republican also criticizing the move.
Questions continue to mount over the US administration’s reasons for ordering the hit on a top foreign government functionary. Latest polls show that a majority of Americans feel less safe after the Iran strike. It is not that Americans are afraid of Iranian retaliation materializing within US mainland. But feeling less safe may have something to do with the fact that Iran is very negatively etched into American memory.
What the latest escalation has done is put “national security” at front and center of national debate, a trend that may persist for some time if underlying causes of the US-Iran conflict are not addressed in time. This already has the effect of a large section of the public (at least the Democratic voter base) looking for a nominee who has can handle matters of national security and use of force with care and deliberation.
That is one major reason why former Vice President Joe Biden, and to some extent the anti-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders, have garnered fresh momentum in the polls after latest US-Iran hostilities marked an epoch. When in government, VP Biden, who had voted for Iraq war, helped extract America US out of Iraq in 2011; he had also opposed the Afghan troop surge in 2009. Bernie, who leads early Democratic primaries, is the quintessential anti-war candidate with credentials to back it.
As it appears likely that a majority of Democratic voters will consolidate behind Biden as their nominee in the end, The Donald has a choice to either level up the escalation or seek rapprochement with Iran. Unlike Carter, Trump has a strong economy going for him. But the incumbent still needs to reassure his political base that he is still signed up to conclude “endless wars” and that he won’t start new ones.
But as Jimmy Carter learnt to his despair in 1980, the initiative rests with the implacable Iranian regime, which has gone on to withstand the economic and geopolitical ups-and-downs over four decades. Even before the slaying of their popular general, some Iranian officials were hinting that Trump would be a one-term president if he attacked Iran. Now Tehran’s proxy warfare in the Middle East may have a broadly-shared objective: get Trump out of office. And there seems to be ample time and space to meet that end.