Monday, December 05, 2005

Public Opinion and Iraq Part 2

According to the New York Times President Bush has a new advisor on Iraq and a new public relations strategy. Peter Feaver is a Duke University political scientist recruited to advise the White House on public opinion vis-à-vis the Iraq war. The President needs new advice because public opinion has turned against the war. The latest Newsweek poll shows that only about 30 percent of the population supports the President’s Iraq policy. Feaver argues that Americans will support a war with high casualties as long as they believe that the war will succeed ultimately. Judging from his latest effort to rally public opinion last week during a speech at the Naval Academy, the President has embraced this thesis wholeheartedly. Bush used the word “victory” 15 times in his address while standing on a stage papered with “Plan for Victory” signs. Bush’s effort to reverse the public’s opposition to the war indicates his belief that a change in presentation, rather than policy, is the antidote to weak public support and that public opinion on Iraq is malleable. I will be interested to see Dr. Feaver’s research on the subject (he has an article appearing soon in International Security) because his thesis seems counterintuitive and runs counter to other recent scholarship on the subject (eg. John Mueller and Richard C. Eichenberg argue that public opinion is unlikely to rebound regardless of the message). Rather than focusing on an eventual victory, it seems more likely that Americans are motivated by the more immediate concern of the importance of the war being fought. That is, are American troops dying in a cause vital to American national security? Public opinion remained, on balance, supportive in the Civil and Second World Wars because the public judged (or was convinced by Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt, depending on your interpretation of the nature of public opinion) that the fight was an essential one. This, it seems to me, explains weak public support on Iraq. With no weapons of mass destruction and a growing perception that the White House prevaricated in presenting its argument for war, Americans apparently doubt that the quest for a “democratic” Iraq is worth the sacrifice.

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