Iraq: Waiting Game is a Fool’s Game

by | Mar 5, 2003

I have to strongly disagree with Mickey Kaus and Daniel Drezner — both have recently argued that it would be to President Bush’s realpolitikal advantage to delay the war against Iraq, and start it closer to the 2004 election. Kaus in Slate (2/28/2003) says “…the actual popularity-boosting war would be closer to the elections — […]

I have to strongly disagree with Mickey Kaus and Daniel Drezner — both have recently argued that it would be to President Bush’s realpolitikal advantage to delay the war against Iraq, and start it closer to the 2004 election.

Kaus in Slate (2/28/2003) says “…the actual popularity-boosting war would be closer to the elections — and right in the middle of the early primary season, making the anti-war Democrats highly uncomfortable. Plus, given the possibility of post-war chaos and anti-American blowback over the mid-to-long term, an Iraq intervention is likely to look a lot better, in November, 2004, if it’s only 12 months old than if it’s 18 months old.”

Drezner (3/2/2003) makes much the same point and adds: “The economic rebound will be stronger. It’s clear that what’s depressing business investment and consumer confidence is the uncertainty over the Iraq situation. If an attack occurs now, the economy will probably experience a short-term rebound from the reduction of uncertainty. Over the longer term, macroeconomic fundamentals like the size of the budget deficit and interest rates will kick in. Now, if you’re a Democrat, you have to believe that in the long term, the ‘bizarrely destructive’ domestic policies of the Bush administration will trigger a downturn. So, if you’re a Dem, when do you want the short-term uptick in the economy to take place — 2003 or 2004?”

These analyses seem to argue that preparing for war is like holding your breath: when you finally breathe again there will be a great rush of relief — so the longer your hold your breath, the greater the relief. Except there’s one obvious problem — you can only hold your breath for so long without killing yourself. In my view, Bush and the hawks are already turning blue and their eyeballs are starting to bug out. It’s time to inhale.

First, the purely political dimension: just look at the polls, gentlemen. Democratic operatives who say that Bush’s approval ratings are “plunging” are exaggerating — but it is nevertheless the case that Bush’s approval ratings have fallen back close to where they were just before 9/11 and they’re still falling. And more important for this analysis, his disapproval ratings are virtually already there, and they’re still rising. The burden of proof rests on anyone who would dispute the hard reality that every additional day of delay further erodes Bush’s political standing.

So it’s a race against time. If Kaus and Drezner are right that the actual onset of war will be popularity-boosting (and I agree with them on that), then the war had better start while Bush’s popularity is still high enough so that the boost will take him to electable levels. If the war were to start today, that would definitely be the case — but, yes, the elections would still be some time off. But will it still be the case, say, a year from now, when everyone’s even more fed up than they already are with the endless debate and the orange alerts and the duct-tape?

If a delayed onset of war is so smart for the Bush, then why are the Democrats doing everything they can to delay the war? Indeed, with every passing day they skillfully cause Bush to stop, reassess the game, and then play for higher stakes: so far Democratic fault-finding has moved Bush’s Iraq agenda all the way from disarmament and regime change to nation-building to — with last week’s speech — region-building. Are we not already at the point where Bush is bound to fail simply by virtue of the sheer ambitiousness and expense of what he’s been brow-beaten into attempting?

Now to the economic dimension: I agree with Drezner to the extent that I expect a major stock market rebound with the relief of uncertainty upon the onset of war, and there may well be a corresponding pick-up in overall economic activity too. But here, again, it’s a race against time. If the political value of the economic pick-up increases by its being deferred closer to the election, that only creates a net advantage to Bush if the public outrage over a stagnating economy and stock market don’t increase even faster. Considering how much easier it is to break an economic Humpty Dumpty than it is to put one back together again, daring to wait to relieve the economy of its war uncertainty would be a foolhardy proposition.

I also believe it is the case that Bush’s sweeping tax-cut plan is not likely to be enacted into law with the current level and trend in his approval ratings — it’s too ambitious for that. The spike in his popularity that would result from the onset of war would make enactment of the tax-cuts far more likely — and in my view it’s a lead-pipe cinch that their enactment would lead to not just an economic pick-up but a downright boom in time for the elections. Believe me, if the Democrats really thought that “the ‘bizarrely destructive’ domestic policies of the Bush administration will trigger a downturn” they’d be doing a lot less to block them and the onset of war that will enable their enactment.

If I were George Bush the only thing that would stop me from giving the go-code would be logistics — I’d just want to know that all the resources required for victory were in place. In every other dimension the clock would be my enemy. Every hour that goes by the polls get worse. Every hour that goes by the economy stays stagnant and opportunity cost compounds. And every hour that goes by increases the risk that one of those weapons of mass destruction that this is supposed to be all about gets used on someone while I was waiting around.

There’s no Machiavellian advantage in waiting. If Bush is going to do this thing, Bush needs to do this thing.

Don Luskin is Chief Investment Officer for Trend Macrolytics, an economics research and consulting service providing exclusive market-focused, real-time analysis to the institutional investment community. You can visit the weblog of his forthcoming book ‘The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid’ at www.poorandstupid.com. He is also a contributing writer to SmartMoney.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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