War Wearied

Cambridge, MA—The American public has responded in similar and predictable ways to each of the country’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 Bush’s handling of the war, and 54% feel that their country shouldn’t have even gone into Iraq in the first place, 42% still believe that the military should remain until the situation is stabilized — and only 30% believe that all troops should be withdrawn entirely.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 hasn’t yet coalesced around any alternative Iraq policy. Patience is certainly thinning, but there is still a feeling 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 — WMDs and state-sponsored terrorism as opposed to an ideological clash — and the subsequent lack of evidence provided to substantiate the action. The implications for the current administration are not encouraging. Presidential confidence hasn’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 that support 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, there’s a sense of unfinished business from America’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 been reasonably discredited 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, current polls indicate 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 government’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, public opinion 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.

2 comments to “War Wearied”
  1. Iran Ayatollah says US does not have the guts to start with Iran. It says there will not be any war because US is in too much of a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan , and therefore, it is in no position to open a third front. Iranian President is confident that his country can bury the United Stated if it dares attacks Iran. http://ayatollah.blog.co.uk/

  2. alternatively…

    perhaps Americans are figuring out what the rest of the World has recognized for some time now.

    The Myth of American Exceptionalism – Howard Zinn

    Naomi Wolf Celebrated Author of “The End of America” & “The Beauty Myth”
    “Fascinating interview with renowned author Naomi Wolf, perhaps best known for her early 1990s feminist classic “€œThe Beauty Myth”€Â?, considered by many to be one of the most important works of the 20th century.

    Wolf discusses her new book “€œThe End of America”€Â?, already on the New York Times bestseller list. The book identifies ten classic steps common to all dictatorships – including those of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Alarmingly, Wolf makes the case that each of these ten steps is occurring in post 9/11 America today. The book is a call to action for young and concerned Americans and this interview intimately frames this important discussion. ”

    Naomi Klein outlines ‘The Shock Doctrine’ with MSNBC’s Olbermann
    Naomi Klein, discussing her book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, outlines how crises, real or perceived, have been used by governments, especially the United States under George W. Bush, to strongarm a disoriented citizenry into accepting changes to its rights, and its government, that it wouldn’t otherwise accept.

    People “don’t actually want to hand their democracies over to multinational corporations,” says Klein. “So, you need some kind of a shock. And that shock could be a war. It could be an economic meltdown. It could be a terrorist attack, but something that creates a period of confusion, of dislocation, of regression.”

    “And then,” continues Klein, “politicians come forward, playing a father figure.”

    “There is a word for what happens when you invade a country, especially on a false pretense, and then you grab its assets,” says Klein. “It’s called looting, right? And it’s illegal. And Iraqis responded as if their country was being looted. Not as if it was being restructured, or developed, or reconstructed, or any of the cleansed words that were used to describe it.”

    “It was a corporate takeover with guns,” responds Olbermann.

    “Yes, armed robbery, yes.”


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    “Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced”

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