Cambridge, MAâ€”The American public has responded inÂ similar and predictableÂ ways to each of the countryâ€™s three major conflicts since World War II. At the beginning of each episode, public support was considerable as people rallied around the flag in support of a shared ideal, be it anti-Communism during Korea and Vietnam, or anti-terrorism in Iraq. Subsequently, support has tended to decline with an increase in casualties and the duration of hostilities. Finally, after both the Korean and Vietnamese wars, the party that initiated the conflict was voted out of the White House, with Eisenhower replacing Truman and Nixon replacing Johnson.
Recent polls have shown eroding support for both the President and the GOP. Less clear is what might be done to halt or reverse that trend. Although more than two-thirds of Americans disapprove of President Bushâ€™s handling of the war, and 54% feel that their country shouldnâ€™t have even gone into Iraq in the first place, 42% still believe that the military should remain until the situation is stabilized â€” and only 30% believe that all troops should be withdrawn entirely. These figures highlight the challenge of responding to divided public opinion in the face of a protracted occupation and discouraging historical precedent.
Though various polls indicate a lack of confidence in the current administration, support hasnâ€™t yet coalesced around any alternative Iraq policy. Patience is certainly thinning, but there isÂ still a feelingÂ amongst the electorate that imposing a deadline for withdrawal might do more harm than good. Americans seem to be able to distinguish between support for the war and support for continued occupation. One implication is that it may be possible to win back support for the administration if a strategy is chosen which ends the occupation effectively and reestablishes trust in the Republicans to run the country at home and abroad.
That said, the window of opportunity for achieving such a goal is closing more quickly than during previous interventions. Casualty for casualty, support for the mission in Iraq has declined faster than during the conflicts in either Korea and Vietnam. There are several potential reasons for this disparity, including different motivations for invasion â€” WMDs and state-sponsored terrorism as opposed to an ideological clash â€” and the subsequent lack of evidence provided to substantiate the action. The implications for the current administration are not encouraging. Presidential confidence hasnâ€™t been this low for this long since Harry Truman was in office, and support for Republicans is dwindling both in Congress and within the Executive.
As a brief counterpoint, it is worth noting thatÂ supportÂ for taking action against Iraq is still higher one might expect, hovering around 45% nationally. The reason is two-fold, and related to American geopolitical activities over the past two decades. First, the global war on terror has crystallized support around the need to defend Americans from terrorist threats, projectively and preemptively if necessary. Second, thereâ€™s a sense of unfinished business from Americaâ€™s first foray into Iraq during Desert Storm, which stopped short of regime change.
However, now that the link between 9/11 terrorism and Iraq has beenÂ reasonably discreditedÂ and the score with Saddam Hussein decisively settled, one might expect continued erosion of public support until a major American withdrawal is underway, as per the experience in Korea and Vietnam.
Formulating a specific policy of withdrawal requires balancing two important goals for the American public: 1) avoiding further casualties, and 2) discouraging insurgents from destabilizing both the country and the region. Given that the public has been so sensitive to casualties in Iraq, minimizing the length of any occupation ought to also slow down that trend. Furthermore,Â current polls indicateÂ that 52% of Americans expect the occupation to last longer than two years, while 72% would prefer that it end in less than two years. Given the disparity between expectations and desires, any withdrawal which involves a meaningful decrease in troops in less than two years might win back some faith in the governmentâ€™s ability to manage external affairs.
Achieving a stable Iraq before withdrawal, however, presents a serious challenge. Any departure from the Iraqi theater would instantly shore up support and confidence in Bin Laden and his anti-American allies. Here again Vietnam presents a useful parallel. While many casualties are likely to result in the power vacuum of an accelerated withdrawal,Â public opinionÂ suggests that Americans are more interested in protecting American lives than foreign ones. Furthermore, 70% of those polled think that Iraqis themselves are to blame for the failure to control their domestic violence. Together, these statistics suggest that, at least politically, the administration has more to gain from a rapid withdrawal than pursuing a policy of extended democracy building, even if such a withdrawal causes Iraq to collapse into open civil war.