When an administration is in trouble right before
an election, it sometimes resorts to an "October
surprise" designed to build support. Certainly this administration
has trouble on a number of fronts, including the Abramoff
scandal, congressional corruption, and a Republican
representative who sent sexually oriented instant messages to congressional
pages. The mother of all issues, however, remains the war, which is not going
well. The military is becoming more outspoken about its unhappiness with the
situation; the intelligence services are saying that the conflict in Iraq is
producing more terrorists, not fewer; and the budget and personnel costs are
rising, causing disquiet even in Republican districts.
As an economist, I am often asked, especially by new acquaintances, "What
is the market going to do?" "Is the economy going to continue to grow
strongly?" My answer is usually to refer them to the local psychic, fortuneteller,
or palm-reader. When I was a member of the Council
of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, I was frequently asked
to forecast future economic trends. I was uncomfortable but asked our staff
to stir the entrails of the computer and produce a "forecast" that
we hoped would be sufficiently ambiguous that, when the future became the past,
we had a fig leaf to stand behind. (Alan
Greenspan was a master at this.) Therefore, it is with some trepidation
that I put forward a conjecture about what George W. Bush may do in the next
month. Let me add that I believe these possible initiatives by the president
would be disastrous, but they are hardly implausible given his record.
This president makes a fetish of looking strong and aggressive. Thus, if he
is to change course in Iraq, which looks increasingly like his only option,
he will want to offset that change with a new and aggressive move. My scenario
starts with James Baker,
who with Lee
Hamilton heads a bipartisan
study group on Iraq, telling the president that he is in a hole and had
better stop digging. Baker may suggest that the U.S. force the Iraqi government
to step up to the plate by announcing that we will pull our troops out by a
date certain. The president will make this recommendation public. He will promise
that most of our soldiers will be gone by the end of 2007 or, at the latest,
by mid-2008. For Republicans, this has the advantage of removing the issue before
the next presidential election and, in all probability, from this midterm poll.
To maintain his macho image, however, the president will also announce that
the U.S. will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if that country refuses to stop
enriching uranium within a week. He is currently laying the political groundwork
for this by asserting that the Democrats would be unwilling to militarily preempt
an aggressive state. The Democrats, he says, will "wait
until we're attacked again," implying that he will strike before we
are assailed. Bombing Iran will be couched in terms of eliminating that country's
ability to attack us with nuclear weapons.
Employing force against Iran will please the pro-Israel lobby and the hawks
in and out of the administration. Vice
President Dick Cheney has been urging an attack on Iran and will be outspoken
in his support. George Bush has found being a wartime president rewarding, especially
at the start of a fight. Right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the violence has
gone on too long and our troops are bogged down. It is quite possible that we
will lose these conflicts, so he might think it good politics to start a new
war with Iran, a country on his "axis of evil." Bush may believe that
it will give him a lift for the next few months.
Unfortunately, this tactic might work. People will see a "strong"
president going after the "evil guys." Initially the public, which
sees most wars – at least until they get bloody – as the World Series or the
Super Bowl, only larger, may rally around the flag. In this case, there will
be no messy street fighting or IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The bombing
will likely produce few if any casualties. The public will support the Republicans,
and the president will get a servile Congress again. He will, of course, lose
the support of Europeans, not just the "old" ones, but the "new"
ones as well. I doubt seriously that Tony Blair will be able to support him
in such a bombing campaign, but then the president has shown that he doesn't
care what other nations think.
As long as he holds off on using nuclear weapons during the bombing, Bush can
threaten Iran that, if it retaliates, either by sending missiles against Israel
or by trying to close the Strait
of Hormuz, the U.S. will respond with nuclear weapons. If everyone hates
us already, what do we have to lose by lobbing a few nuclear missiles? Thus,
he might be able to get away with the bombing without any serious repercussions,
at least in the short run.
Although this is a scary scenario, it seems all too possible. I certainly hope
that my forecasts here are no better than my predictions concerning the economy.
Perhaps Bush will simply stay in Iraq and continue to threaten Iran; but if
the threats are to be meaningful, he will feel forced to act. If so, why not
now, when he needs the jolt to get the Congress he wants? Should Bush pull something
like this, let us hope that the voters will see through his scheme.