Today’s guest post comes from Barefoot Boomer. Boomer is a career Army officer and strategist. He is also a historian with an emphasis in American and German military history. The content and opinions of this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
If I may clarify first: there is no evidence to suggest that the incoming Trump administration is planning to go to war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if you take a look at the rhetoric from not only the new members of Trump’s inner circle but also the fiery diatribe from Republicans for the past decade or more, you can see a trend towards that possibility. If the trend line ultimately points towards war with Iran, Trump and Company need to start building popular support for it now. They need to start prepping the home front.
Public support is key to any military operation the United States conducts. Leaders weigh risk of any action they take and judge whether or not the value of the object in view is worth spending political capital, blood, and treasure to achieve the end state. We’ve seen it time and again. Lincoln knew it. FDR knew it. The Elder Bush knew it. And we in the military strategy business know it.
If you have done any strategic studies course or mid-level officer’s course then you have had the Clausewitzian three-legged stool burned into your brain, right next to your coup d’oeil. Balancing the stool requires ensuring the balance of government, military, and the passions of the people thus providing the tools supposedly necessary for successful military operations. And when we plan – using either the Joint Operations Planning Process (JOPP) or the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) – we always discuss Center of Gravity (CoG), the one thing on which all success rests. More often than not, the American public and their support tends to become the strategic-level friendly Center of Gravity.
Ensuring that the support of the American people is behind whatever major operation the military conducts is usually job number one for the Commander-in-Chief. He or she is the cheerleader, the face of the cause, and must “wave the bloody shirt” to rouse patriotic fervor that can sustain the country throughout the conflict. Examples abound of Presidents making the case for war and then trying like hell to keep it. Normally, the longer a war or operation drags on, the more the American public becomes apathetic, or even hostile, to continuing it. History has shown that it is imperative to America’s success that the home front be as supportive as possible.
Abraham Lincoln felt it during the 1864 election. Years of stalemate and losses had driven Northern support for the war down significantly. Lincoln knew if he lost the election that his successor would sue for peace. It was Lincoln bringing General Grant east, Grant understanding the political climate, and the “victories” during the Overland Campaign that ultimately swayed opinion back enough to continue the war against the Confederacy.
President Franklin Roosevelt knew he did not have public support for war with Germany and did all he could to support England and Russia in their existential fight against the Nazi onslaught. America’s isolationist mentality prevented further intervention by the United States until the Japanese gave him the excuse FDR needed to join the war with their attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into Kuwait in 1990, President George H. W. Bush used the months after the invasion to build a case for war with Iraq. Knowing that he needed to garner international support as well as the support of the American public, Bush ensured that he had a broad coalition at home and abroad before launching Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait.
If President Trump decides that war with Iran is necessary he will need to conduct the same kinds of buoying of the American people that past Commanders-in-Chief have done, and he will need to start early. Whether it be targeted strikes to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions or full-blown invasion to compel a regime change in Tehran, Trump must get the American people behind him. He will most likely have Republicans in his corner already, with opposition to the Iran nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama White House relatively unanimous across the party and a deep-seeded hatred for Iran having existed since the 1979 embassy hostage crisis. His main challenge will be having to convince the rest of us of the righteousness of the cause and that “the juice is worth the squeeze.”
Any fight against the Iranians will be hard, bloody, and drawn out. And it won’t be contained to just Iran or the Middle East. Terror attacks, in Europe and possibly in America itself, are a real threat if the U.S. conducts military operations against the Islamic Republic. It will take hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars. Trump will have a difficult time keeping popular support high and, if things start to go badly, explaining why operations should continue.
As I noted in the beginning, there is no proof right now that Trump will, or is planning to, start a war with Iran. But if his appointments of Flynn, Mattis, and others who hold very confrontational views towards Iran to his administration are any indication, it is a distinct possibility. And as Angry Staff Officer pointed out in his piece on Monsters, every administration needs a bogeyman. If Iran is our next monster, President Trump needs to start the dialogue soon. Any national discussion we have will already be partisan and if Trump wants to ensure that he has the support of a sizable portion of the American public, he will have to make a strong case for any military operation.
And he has to start now.
Headline image beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, courtesy the New York Times