Even without really following US elections closely, one must have heard and remembers the famous phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” This was popularized by the successful Clinton campaign coined by its strategist James Carville. The then-incumbent President George H.W. Bush held office at a time of global political transition, presiding over the end of the Cold War. And so the United States of America was seen then as the victor of the half a century ideological war against what was then the Soviet Union.
The senior Bush was in the right place at the right time as many saw his foreign policy experience as his foremost qualification to be in the White House. Especially at a time when world politics was changing significantly, he was the right person to preside. He wasn’t that popular at first as he had yet to demonstrate his worth in statecraft. His inaugural approval rating then was relatively low at 51% (Gallup is the reference for approval ratings in this article).
Almost overnight, that 51% became 70% and reached as high as 80%, unprecedented then for a sitting US President. This uptick started as he adequately made the delicate balance of denouncing China for the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen protests for democracy. His speech and press conference made it abundantly clear that the US excoriated the Chinese government’s indiscriminate violence against its people who peaceably assembled in Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, he also made it clear that there was internal struggle in the Chinese leadership that he didn’t want to exploit, apart from the unnecessary economic impact of a drastic US move.
This tact showed the sensitivity of the President that while there was a need to send the message that the US deplores China in its handling of the popular protest, he was careful enough to avoid the economic cost of reckless measures. The early 1990s after all didn’t only see the fall of communism; it was also the time when the US economy started to show signs of weakening. The latitude the US government used to enjoy in engaging in wars here and there was no longer the same.
George Bush Senior’s adeptness at foreign relations would be further exhibited in America’s astute handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the cautious transition of the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation. Experts and historians then agreed that while former President Reagan gave that famous “tear down the gate” speech in Brandenburg, President Bush was instrumental in making sure the transition would be smooth and without the expense and difficulties of instability.
The US would then be seen as the “Policeman of the World” as Bush made erstwhile US ally in Latin America, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, answer to his crimes, and acting swiftly to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussein with the famous “Operation Desert Storm”. All these international exploits would not be enough however to secure President Bush a second term. The growing concern with the economy led to the Democrats taking over the White House in 1992 with the convincing win of President Bill Clinton.
The Reagan presidency, on record, had more wars and military action: from the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai and in Lebanon from 1982-1983 to Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983 to El Dorado Canyon in 1986 and Operation Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf from 1987-1988. And there were fewer military operations conducted under President Reagan’s leadership that many thought he was instrumental in having his administration go down in US history as the most popular presidency.
It would then seem that the Ronald Reagan and the George H.W. Bush presidencies reached the height of Republican dominance and could serve as a template. Both were great Presidents and popular with their handling of international politics. With the attendant controversies of the narrow electoral vote win of George W. Bush in 2000, on the other hand, it would prove to be difficult to follow such a template, apart from the fact that the time had already shifted to a more peaceful world. In an international political environment that has come to be defined more by economics than politics, it would be difficult to just go to war. Wars, in the first place, can strengthen the fledgling approval rating of a sitting President, but it would still require some level of popular support to be initiated.
This popular support requires some level of credibility, which was not significant in the greater part of George Jr.’s presidency. The younger Bush was seen as weaker than the father, especially in foreign policy. Many observers saw his win as simply fortuitous. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was rather ineffective, even boring a speaker, not to mention the suave handling of the Republican campaign. The result then showed how difficult it was for the American voters to decide. Gore won the popular vote while George Jr. got the electoral votes.
If not for the September 2001 terrorist attack, George W. Bush would have been an unpopular President all throughout his 8 years in office, averaging only 49% in approval rating. His last 4 years in office was the worst, reaching the all-time low of 37%. Thanks to the September 2001 terrorist attack, however, this unpopularity would turn overnight and catapult George Jr. to his highest 90% public approval rating. It eventually made him the most popular President during a midterm Congressional election in 2002, allowing the Republicans to achieve a Federal Trifecta or a condition where a political party controls all political branches of government.
The objective, more than getting control of both houses of Congress, however, was to ensure winning reelection. This for sure was in the minds of the Republicans then as there was a need to avoid what happened to George Sr. in 1992. The popularity had to be sustained and it would appear that the strategy that was thought of was to go to war. In October 2002, just a month before the midterm elections, President George W. Bush's pronouncement, that Iraq had a “massive stockpile of biological weapons,” was instrumental in the 2001 terrorist attacks and therefore had to be stopped.
The pronouncement was supposed to have basis in a CIA report. However, the same report, as would be eventually revealed, did not contain specific information needed to justify the pronouncement and the subsequent call to occupy Iraq and do away with Saddam Hussein. There was no information on the types or quantities of weapons that Baghdad had. The claim of a “massive stockpile” then appeared to have been literally made up. In fact, subsequent reports revealed that intelligence officials even warned that war could cause massive instability and societal collapse and, most especially, even worsen the problem of terrorism.
At least, it proved to be an effective political strategy, as it led to the stabilizing of the President’s approval ratings. The numbers stayed at the 60% level and reaching as high as 71%. It would nevertheless not be enough to reach the same level of 90% as it was in 2001. In fact, the numbers started to taper as the handling of the war became a key issue in the run up to the 2004 Presidential election. The Republicans still stuck to the strategy and asked the voters “Not to Change in Midstream” in its campaign. George W. Bush got his second term with another close vote defeating John Kerry.
The US is again at a time when it has to decide whether to keep a sitting President or have a different one come November. The Republican template of war appears to be in play again as President Donald Trump fights for his second term. His numbers suggest it will be difficult to stay for the next 4 years, hence, the need for a strategy. There was not one instance in 2019 that his approval rating reached 50%, averaging only 41.6% and dropping as low as 37%. Like clockwork, President Trump announced on 5 January that he ordered the assassination of Iran’s celebrated General Qasem Soleimani. Interestingly, he said he did so “to stop a war."
But it cannot be to stop a war, according to Michael Ware in a CNN opinion. “No American president has ever taken the fight to Tehran like this. It’s bold. It’s provocative.” Ware noted that the US has been at war with Iran for more than forty years now, dating way back to 1953. The US staged a coup to take down a popular, secular and nationalist prime minister then and put in place the Shah who proved to be an indulgent monarch. Since then, Iran was no longer the same politically as it prepared itself to be a regional player. Trump's action in January 5 could then lead to an escalation as it puts the Middle East back on a warpath.
George W. Bush’s war in Iraq improved his popularity for a while, and the Republicans accomplished having him reelected. It may not turn out the same with President Trump. The Bush administration then took pains to explain to the public why there had to be war in Iraq. Trump and his people, on the other hand, seem to think there’s no need to explain to the public why it had to be done. Interviewed by the media on 6 January how imminent the attacks on US and its interests were that there was a need to stop it, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed it, saying it was not relevant for him to reveal. That could have been an opportunity to show decisiveness on the part of the President, crucial in brushing up his image and improving his numbers.
So far, the effect of the assassination is far from stopping any war. The headline last Sunday said otherwise: not only is war made imminent, it also suggests that terrorism can and will intensify. Iran announced it was freeing itself from previous agreements restricting uranium enrichment, while the parliament of Iraq voted to expel US troops. Instead of neutralizing Iran, the assassination is giving them an opportunity to consolidate influence in Baghdad, not to mention that if the US leaves Iraq, it significantly cripples its continuing fight against extremism.
More than the coming elections and the possibility of war, I have to ask: who is actually benefitting from all of these? Consider this: before the assassination, China, Russia and Iran held joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman on 27 December 2019. Iranian military cooperation with Russia and China was in full display as the still ongoing military drills were reported in 2 January. And just hours ago now, the three countries’ Foreign Ministers were reported to have spoken.
How do we make sense of all these? It may appear to be obvious who is allied with whom. If previous reports were to be considered however, it may appear to be complicated and therefore the alliances are unclear. We have to ask how true the reports were that Trump’s election in 2016 was orchestrated by Russia.
The recent impeachment complaint very much suggests that there is, in fact, a Russian connection for President Donald Trump. There are also reports Russia was involved in engineering Brexit. How about the dragging demonstrations in Hong Kong? I can’t help but ask then who is in charge in the White House? If this question is relevant, then having Trump reelected is the least of a concern for everyone, regardless of whether one is a Republican or not.
(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.