Trying to steer public opinion


When the public speaks, the government listens and typically responds, even in times of war.

While the American public reputedly lacks the patience and the willingness to bear the costs of war, the history of public attitudes during military conflict reflects differing patterns. When victory eludes the nation, support wanes. When the cause is just and the results are successful, the public can hold the course - also during times of travail.

In Iraq, public support was high initially and for more than two years, but in recent months it has dropped below majority levels. Half of Americans now think it was a mistake to have entered the fighting, and a sizable majority disapproves of the president's handling of the war.

While rarely do politicians follow academic insights, evidently the Bush administration is heeding research pioneered at the RAND Corp. showing that results and success buoy public attitudes and staunch declining support. Though reality rather than rhetoric reveals results, President Bush now speaks of victory more often in hope of rallying the American public. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld criticizes the media for focusing on the negative, particularly casualties.

Support declined for the Vietnam and Korean wars as casualties rose. In those conflicts, the numbers were multiples higher and the time frames longer. Though the media often were blamed for souring public approval, studies about the1968 Tet offensive and the Army in Vietnam showed that most press coverage was favorable and that the media did not drive public disapproval.

Moreover, the same pattern of declining support manifested itself in the Soviet Union during its Afghanistan war, as the body bags silently returned to private grief and anger. Eventually, as the U.S. did in Vietnam, that superpower also had to withdraw.

During the Vietnam debates, Vermont Sen. George D. Aiken suggested that the United States declare victory and get out. Do rhetorical and public diplomacy strategies today bode a similar approach, and is the combination likely to work?

The history of the Reagan administration's rhetorical and public diplomacy efforts indicates that presidents can drive up public support, but only so far. Though the majority never approved the funding of the Nicaraguan contras against the Sandinista government in the 1980s, public support for the contras here rose by about 10 percent to 15 percent in polls over a three-year campaign by the great communicator.

Yet despite Ronald Reagan's use of the bully pulpit and public diplomacy strategies, the majority of Americans remained unpersuaded to support that proxy war, which ended in electoral victory for the opposition through the ballot, not bullets.

Similarly unrecognized during Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were higher levels of public support than the media or politicians reported. And the successes of the operations there - with little costs beyond dropping bombs - contributed to steadying support and greater trust in the military. With no Americans in ground combat or coming home as casualties from more clearly humanitarian interventions then, comparison to today's war is difficult.

Yet the idea that public diplomacy or a public relations campaign can sell an unpopular war is unlikely to provide long-term staying power. A rule of thumb is that public perceptions of foreign policy initiatives respond about 80 percent to policy and 20 percent to presentation. And the Iraq policy and results appear not to be changing fundamentally enough to alter this equation.

The daily barrage of suicide bombings and the constant trickle of American losses don't help. The passage of time with little progress frustrates the public - missing a strategy for victory or stability or withdrawal. The rising human and financial costs, now exceeding $225 billion (a third of Vietnam's cost in today's dollars), take their toll in spirit and public attitudes. The successful election in Iraq, with high turnout also among previously disaffected Sunnis, bodes better. But it's too soon to tell.

The president's calls for victory may boost support slightly, as might a major offensive there or a national crisis here that rallies approval. Support is likely to flag again absent lowered levels of fighting, or clear military success by a likely larger U.S. or growing Iraqi force. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has called for more troops; Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, wants to bring our men and women out. The level of alternative voices isn't currently loud enough to drive the debate, so Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld are taking the lead.

The real question is whether the Sunnis' participation in the Dec. 15 election will lead them to a political, rather than insurgency, strategy for wielding power. The questions remain, too, that if the United States leaves before the environment stabilizes, will the situation in Iraq deteriorate into a civil war? Could Iraq become the feared base for terrorists groups, previously absent but now trained and angered by a U.S. occupation?

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, an advocate first of massive force and then of the you-break-it-you-fix-it approach to military intervention, may have had it right, one way or the other. But the terrorists who saw the withdrawals from Lebanon, Somalia and Haiti as signs of the United States lacking resolve may be emboldened by less than a U.S. victory in Iraq.

As the coalition of the willing keeps shrinking, serious questions remain about the wisdom of the United States starting the war. American attitudes may or may not force the U.S. out, since public opinion constrains but does not set foreign and defense policy.

There are no easy answers, but the prudent public learns from events, rhetoric and enduring leadership in times of crisis. And successful or failing events will guide Americans' international education, not soaring political rhetoric.

Richard Sobel is author of "The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam." David Nelson is the Carnegie teaching fellow on the media and the military at Northwestern University. Their e-mails are and

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