I have a question about the mounting threat of armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran currently. For instance, Donald J. Trump tweeted in 2011:

In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.

and in 2012:

Don't let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected--be careful Republicans!

What is this concept that is being referred to, whereby starting a war just before an election will get an incumbent re-elected; what are the mechanisms to cause that effect?

  • The question was off-topic because you asked what was Donald Trump thinking when he wrote those things. I do not know that, and nobody but Donald Trump knows (and then you would have to trust Donald Trump word for it). Note that I have not answered that question, what I have answered is "Why would a sitting POTUS want to start a war?" and my answer is rather generic and does not involve what DT believes or not.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 4 '20 at 17:30
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    Closers: this is a Wag the Dog question, which Trump presumably would have seen -- he may not read much, but he's a movie fan. The OP's examples are apposite, given Trump is both the critic, and now the subject, of the WTD hypothesis, but the Q. is of general interest.
    – agc
    Jan 6 '20 at 7:17
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    This is a legit question stop close spamming Jan 6 '20 at 13:57
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    The President of the United States cannot declare war. That's Congress's job. The President prosecutes a war (aka fights in a war) once declared with the military.
    – hszmv
    Jan 6 '20 at 16:21
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    @hszmv, Re "The President ... cannot ...": To historians, veterans, and those engaged, a war is a war, war being a term describing a fact, while the euphemisms of office holders are just politics.
    – agc
    Jan 13 '20 at 5:50

Using war to get support is known as the "Rally around the flag Effect."

As per Wikipedia,

The rally 'round the flag effect (or syndrome) is a concept used in political science and international relations to explain increased short-run popular support of the President of the United States during periods of international crisis or war. Because rally 'round The Flag effect can reduce criticism of governmental policies, it can be seen as a factor of diversionary foreign policy.

This has been a "standard concept" in political science, but I see especially after the Iraq War, where many perceived that the intelligence justifying the war was manipulated, there may have to be some adjustment to this concept because we don't see that happening more recently with Trump's assassination of Suleimani.

According to reports from Maggie Haberman,

President Trump “actually was surprised” his decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani wasn’t “a unifying event for the country,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman told CNN.

Said Haberman: “He actually was surprised this was not more of a unifying event for the country, which is what he expected it was going to be. Something more along the lines of what you saw around the Iraq War lead-up.”

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    Note that, in the specific case of Iran, it worked very much to their advantage when Saddam attacked in 1980 - the big post-revolution mess was put aside, contrary to Saddam's expectations and the country unified (or was forcibly unified) to beat him off. There is nothing particularly US-specific to this effect despite wikipedia's wording and in fact this effect could have worked to consolidate Iran's govt, were it not for Ukraine International flight 752. Jan 14 '20 at 21:57
  • Sorry for the US Centric post. I know this effect can be something that occurs in many countries!
    – Karlomanio
    Jan 14 '20 at 22:36
  • no, not at all, good answer. the question was US centric. And the wikipedia article was as well, the least they could do was to refer to a more generic version of this phenomenon, but that's got nothing to do with you. Jan 14 '20 at 23:25
  • This is just my speculation but it may be that the US as a whole doesn’t consider itself at war with Iran despite the assassination – but had a chain of retributions occured and propagated into a war within days then we would probably observe the effect by February.
    – Jan
    Jan 15 '20 at 12:20
  • @Karlomanio interesting addition to the Rally Round the Flag Effect in the post 9/11 era. Perhaps the RRF effect has been stably attenuated in America after the apparent untrustworthiness put on display during the Bush admin's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, WMD scandals, declarations of victory ("mission accomplished") despite continued deployment and expansion into Afghanistan and now (again) Iran of course.
    – Dij
    Jan 18 '20 at 3:48

Humans have a strong built-in tendency to work together in groups. However this social niceness has a mirror image on the dark side: one of the things that they are especially prone to working on is hurting people who are not in the group. Sociologists call this "In-group vs Out-group". Its also known as "Us vs Them".

In a modern nation there are lots of potential groups, and so there is a centrifugal tendency. People form smaller groups around all sorts of things: places, ethnic identities, sports teams, political parties and the like. This leads to disunity in the country and opposition to its leadership.

The solution for the leadership is obvious: find a big threatening out-group somewhere outside the country and make it look like a threat. Talk about how "They" are a threat to "Us" (meaning the people of the country), and how we must all work together to defeat this threat.

This technique is well known, but that doesn't make it any less effective. A classic example was the Falklands War:

When Argentina’s military junta invaded the Falkland Islands, a British colony, in April 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s political future was in serious question.

Britain's first female prime minister was facing sharp criticism from both her cabinet and the public in response to her domestic policies. Savage government spending cuts, a declining manufacturing industry and high unemployment all pointed to an early exit for the leader.


Her quick response to the South Atlantic conflict and swift victory led to a surge in her popularity and subsequent reelection in 1983. She would go on to serve until 1990, making her Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century.

(Side note: the extent to which the war was an election strategy rather than a principled response to a foreign invasion is a controversial issue. As it is a question of individual motivation it is off topic here unless some specific evidence (e.g. a memo by Mrs T. on the subject) comes to light).

Of course this all assumes that you win the war. If Britain had lost the Falklands there is little doubt that Mrs Thatcher would not have remained Prime Minister.

Another example has been visible in Iran in recent days. After the assassination of General Soleimani there was a huge surge of patriotism and support for the Government, which eagerly talked up the threat from the USA and the need to fight back.

Mirroring fierce threats of retaliation from across Iran’s leadership since Friday’s assassination, Salami threatened to “set ablaze” American interests in the region, drawing cries of “death to Israel” from the crowd.

However the government's credibility as leaders in a war against the USA was shredded when they were forced to admit (after three days of denial) that they had shot down a civilian airliner.

Just days before the flight crashed, Iran displayed an unprecedented level of unity and popular support when millions of people poured on to the streets all over the country to mourn the death of Soleimani.

This seemed to indicate that, when faced with the external threat of military confrontation, Iranians from different political and economic backgrounds could come together and put aside their divisions.

But the shooting down of flight PS752 and the subsequent denials from the authorities could lead these divisions to re-emerge and become even sharper.

This is likely to revive the divisions and unrest that erupted in November when the Iranian government approved a sharp spike in fuel prices. This move triggered large demonstrations across the country and resulted in widespread repression and the killing of at least 300 people.

Trump knows all this just as well as anyone else; the quoted tweets accused Obama of using this as an election tactic. Of course, with the next election looming ahead he might find it advantageous to play the same game himself.

  • +1 for thoroghness, but I would also note that many reports suggested a high-degree of heterogenity in the sentiments expressed by civilians towards their own governments' acts of war to the point where protests arose in each country entirely contradictory of the behavior one would expect to be directed at a perceived 'antagonistic outgroup'.
    – Dij
    Jan 18 '20 at 4:01

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