Have you been to Abilene? It’s a small city 150 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas. Jessica Simpson’s from there, and so is quarterback Case Keenum. Vinnie Paul from Pantera too (RIP). It’s probably a lovely place. I don’t know because I’ve never been there. I’m thinking we should go. Do you want to come along?
The Abilene paradox, first detailed by management analyst Jerry B. Harvey, is a story about four people from Coleman, Texas, who don’t.
The family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles north) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.
I’ll bet you don’t want to go to Abilene now. The cafeteria may have improved in the last 45 years, but why take the risk? If someone suggests going to Abilene and you think everyone else agrees, all you have to do is speak up. You probably won’t. You will think your preferences run counter to those of the group, so you’ll nod along, unwilling to rock the boat. Except everyone wants someone else to rock it. That’s how insidious the Abilene paradox is.
Which brings me to our impending war with Iran. The last time we had an unpopular Republican president whose election was clouded by malfeasance and who hated some folks from the Middle East, we went to war with Iran’s neighbor, Iraq. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney believed that wartime presidents were the most popular presidents, so he used the pretense of 9/11 to gin up an attack against the Bush family’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11. America was looking for payback against someone, anyone, who might be responsible. George W. happily agreed to solidify his dad’s legacy, and our eight-plus-year war in Iraq defined American adventurism abroad for the new millennium.
We find ourselves in a similar situation—with an unpopular Republican president whose election was clouded by malfeasance and who hates some folks from the Middle East—but this time you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks going to war with Iraq’s neighbor is a stellar idea.
At the time we invaded it, Iraq was a nation of 25 million people with no weapons of mass destruction. Iran is a nation of 80 million people—a million of which are active soldiers—and they do have weapons of mass destruction. They have the largest ballistic missile array in the Middle East. Unless you want Fajr-3 rockets raining on Tel Aviv, you don’t want to fight Iran.
Of course, if you’re John Bolton, that’s the best day ever. Possessed of a shimmering walrus mustache and a lifelong desire to go to war with Iran, Bolton got Trump’s attention by lap-licking his administration on Fox News. Fresh off dumping “adult in the room” H.R. McMaster, Trump blindly nominated Bolton to be National Security Advisor. This despite Trump’s allies at Fox warning that war with Iran would be like Christmas for Bolton.
So when the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, it marked the first time an element of a foreign government had been officially designated a terrorist entity. We followed that up by alleging without proof that Iran was involved in a sabotage effort against an oil tanker group. This unilateral escalation is essentially an act of war. It announces that the administration is ready to go to war, and it doesn’t plan to ask Congress’s permission when it does so. Bolton engineered this so he could get his war, daring his own administration to remove a terrorist organization or face the consequences.
Except the administration isn’t ready to go to war with Iran. Not even a little.
Trump sure isn’t ready to go to war with Iran. He campaigned on a platform of getting us out of entanglements, and he’s been pretty amazing at it. The next president’s day-one checklist is going to look like the one at left. This is the profile of a man who retreats from foreign relations, not looks to compound them. Despite tweeting that “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran!” he mused to his acting defense secretary that he does not want a war with Iran.
That acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, isn’t ready to go to war with Iran. He said our efforts have deterred Iranian attacks on the U.S. (for which he provided no evidence), and there’s no expectation that we’ll need to go to war. Mike Pompeo isn’t ready to go to war with Iran. The secretary of state warned Iran not to attack us, but otherwise said we didn’t seek a military conflict. Jared Kushner isn’t ready to go to war with Iran. While arranging Saudi payments into his pockets, America’s crown prince has been promoting his as-yet-unveiled Middle East peace plan, and missiles over Riyadh don’t get that plan rolling.
The unease extends beyond the administration. Congressional Republicans aren’t ready to go to war with Iran. Senator Lindsay Graham said he didn’t know any more about Iranian tensions than what he read in the newspaper, and urged the Department of Defense to explain itself. Our allies aren’t ready for us to go to war with Iran. As we rolled out a military surge against the Islamic Republic, Spain boldly removed its warship from our detachment. This is our crisis to navigate, our allies said. Don’t expect help.
And Iran is definitely not ready for us to go to war with it. They’re showing bravado when a confident power would simply offer to talk it out. The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded to Trump on Twitter.
But we’re still going to war, because America believes we are. Despite everyone’s reservations, John Bolton is the bored father-in-law that proposes going to Abilene for dinner. With Congress winning on every front in the race to paint Trump as a danger, things will get bad at home for the Trump family. As everything falls apart for Trump, Bolton will simply turn into Dick Cheney. “A wartime president is a popular president,” he’ll whisper in Trump’s ear. Stephen Miller will probably throw his Muslim-hating voice in there too. Trump will listen, because he has no off-ramp with Iran. He’s stoked fear of Muslims since descending the escalator, and now he has to back that up.
Uncomfortably, Trump will say he wants to go to Abilene. Fearing being booted from office, Pompeo and Shanahan and Kushner will begrudgingly agree they want to go too. The Republicans in Congress, fearful of primary challenges, will get in the car. Even a few of our allies will form a Coalition of the Unwilling. None will really want to, but no one will want to rock the boat, and all their reservations will turn into dinner reservations.
Only one force can turn this car around: Trump’s voters. For Bolton’s war, Trump needs soldiers. Trump’s base has stood with him in crisis after crisis. Will they be willing to die for it, or send their sons and daughters to do so? Especially when there is no reason for doing so other than to keep the Trumps in power?
My money’s on yes. Trump’s base is secure, even if they start dying in droves. That cafeteria in Abilene should prepare for a whole lot of us to arrive soon.
This is the thirty-sixth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, and Brexit. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking the link.