Archive for September, 2008

Public Opinion: Is the Fight Worth Fighting?

September 11, 2008

In an article for Foreign Affairs (,zusr) Robert Kagan points out that many politicos, including liberals, initially supported the decision to invade Iraq.  Some did on purely realist grounds, believing that Saddam was a threat to the US.  Others did it primarily for humanitarian reasons or a desire to promote liberalism in the Middle East.  Many were motivated by a variety of factors.  The American public was also heavily in favor of the war at the beginning.  In March 2003, 75 percent of Americans thought the invasion was a good idea.  By May 2007, when 4,000 US soldiers had died and the prospects of stabilizing Iraq seemed bleak, only 39 percent believed it was the right thing to do.  The drop in support was due to mounting casualties and costs, not the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); in May 2003, only 19 percent of US citizens thought the presence of WMDs in Iraq was needed to justify the invasion.  The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the American people judge political decisions about military intervention based on continuous cost-benefit analyses, not on the principles which affected the decision to go to war. 


Changes in public opinion about previous conflicts affirm this assessment.  In 1965, 60 percent of Americans supported sending US troops to Vietnam.  By 1969, after nearly 30,000 soldiers had died and the Tet Offensive sapped confidence that the war could be won, only 42 percent of American still thought getting involved was a good decision.    At the beginning of the Korean War in July 1950, 66 percent of the Americans supported US intervention, but by December of that year, after the Chinese entered the conflict and a military stalemate developed, support for the war dropped to 39 percent.  During the buildup to the Gulf War, when many politicos were predicting thousands of US casualties, 54 percent of Americans supported President George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf policy, but by the end of it 82 percent supported his decision to intervene; the rise in the level of public approval undoubtedly resulted from the fact that the US won decisively and suffered few casualties.  World War Two demonstrates that the American people will accept a large amount of casualties if they believe that the mission is important and it can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time; during that conflagration, the US sustained far more casualties than it did during other modern conflicts, but the military was consistently winning battles and moving inexorably towards victory, which made Americans continue to believe that the costs were worth the benefits (the decision to intervene was never questioned in light of the fact that Japan and Germany declared war on the US).


The lesson to be drawn by policymakers from this examination of past conflicts is that public support for a war effort at the beginning of a conflict does not necessarily mean that such support will last because the American people do cost-benefit analyses as wars progress, and citizens need to believe that a particular war is winnable if they are going to support it.  This has major implications for the war in Afghanistan, about which public opinion has shifted over time.  In 2001, 93 percent of Americans were in favor of going in.  Now only 68 percent still think it was a good idea to invade, and 44 percent think the US should leave as soon as possible (50 percent think the US should keep troops there until the country stabilizes).  These changes are likely due to the fact that a majority of Americans now believe that things aren’t going well in Afghanistan and they aren’t sure if the US will succeed there.  A major turnaround in the situation will be needed to retain popular support for the war effort.  To achieve that, additional troops and a lot more money for nation-building projects may be required, or perhaps the killing of a high profile Al Qaeda leader like Bin Laden.  The challenges in Afghanistan are exacerbated by the fact that the US is bogged down in Iraq.  Perhaps a withdrawal from that country, which I am in favor of, would free up sufficient resources to reverse the trend in a more important conflict.