Tuesday, November 29, 2005

American Public Opinion and the War in Iraq

John Mueller published an interesting article in the latest Foreign Affairs issue on waning public support for the American military campaign in Iraq. In brief, he argues that the pattern of American public support for operations in Iraq has followed the same trend it followed in America’s other major post-Second World War military engagements, Korea and Vietnam. That is, strong, initial support for military operations (i.e. rally in support of “our boys over there”) which falters inexorably as casualties increase. Mueller asserts that, despite President Bush’s best efforts to rally support, public backing will almost certainly not increase substantially. This means that Bush will be forced to embrace an exit strategy for American troops that commences sooner rather than later. Mueller goes on to suggest that America’s post-Iraq foreign policy will be similar to its post-Vietnam foreign policy, i.e. more constrained and much less willing to send troops abroad. I want to make two points in connection with Mueller’s article. First, from a scholarly viewpoint, his depiction of American public opinion as structured, coherent, resistant to manipulation and changing in a logical manner seems to buttress the more recent scholarship on public opinion’s role in American foreign policy and to refute much of the traditional “Almond-Lippmann” consensus. Second, from a political standpoint, Mueller indicates that, vis-à-vis the Iraq issue, public support for Bush especially and Republicans to a lesser extent will slip regardless of any policy suggestions put forward by the Democrats. With 2006 midterm elections in mind, this suggests the following campaign strategies for the two parties: for the Democrats, avoid detailed policy proposals for Iraq other than sober, moderate generalities (the recent calls by Senators Biden and Obama for orderly, gradual troop withdrawals seem to follow this pattern); for the Republicans in Congress the strategy should be twofold – downplay the war as much as possible (a difficult task but not impossible) and when forced to address the Iraq issue, mirror (but not too obviously) Democrat calls for orderly, gradual troop withdrawal; early indications are that the President’s team has begun to accept the inevitability of beginning significant troop withdrawals before the 2006 elections (November in the U.S. and December, I believe, in Iraq). Most reports indicate that Iraqi troops are nowhere near ready to fight the insurgency alone. That and the likelihood of irreconcilable sectarian differences between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis do not bode well for the country’s future. It also augurs badly for Bush’s legacy, which will be based largely on the success of his Iraq policy….

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