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What the Public Will Stomach

For two years critics of the war in Iraq have wondered how long the public would stand by President Bush in the face of continuing insurgent attacks and increasing American casualties. Recently, polls have shown public support is waning. In the latest NYT/CBS News poll only 42 percent approved of his presidency and 60 percent said that the war in Iraq is"going badly." Two weeks ago the president delivered a prime time address to try to revive public support.

What does history show about public support for war and all that war entails? In the fall of 2003, six months into the war, Lawrence Kaplan tried to answer that troubling question in a cover story for the New Republic. Given the course the war has taken we thought this was a good time to revisit the issues Mr. Kaplan raised. The magazine has kindly allowed us to reprint the article in full. (In 2003 we published an excerpt in conjunction with an HNN Poll: Is President Bush Likely to Lose Public Support If Soldiers Continue to Die?.)

Incidents like last week's destruction of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, combined with the steady drip of American casualties, have prompted many opinion-makers to conclude the American public has had enough."Those are good kids that we're sending into the shooting gallery called Iraq," noted New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, adding that his readers"have to be nursing the sick feeling that each death is a tragic waste, and this conflict is as much a fool's errand as the war in Vietnam." Nor is this reading confined to the op-ed pages."[T]here are an awful lot of Americans who are kind of sleepless these days," presidential aspirant Howard Dean informed a crowd last weekend."They are sleepless wondering whether their kid is going to be the next to die in Iraq." Complaining that American troops have become targets in Herbert's"shooting gallery," Ted Kennedy wants to know,"How do you console a family by telling them that their son or daughter is a casualty of the postwar period?"

But the casualties generated in Iraq's"shooting gallery" rile the likes of Dean and Herbert more than they do the public at large. Well before the first shot was fired, a mass of polling data suggested the country's willingness to tolerate battle deaths in Iraq exceeded even the figures predicted in worst-case scenarios. In 1999, a massive opinion survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (tiss) asked people to name the highest number of American military deaths they would accept in a war to"prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction." The mean response: 29,853. A CBS News/New York Times survey last October found that 54 percent of respondents favored military action even in the event of"substantial" American casualties. Despite the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction, the war's bloody aftermath hasn't elicited much of an outcry, either. In the face of mounting casualties, 58 percent of those questioned in a July Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said American troops should stay in Iraq"as long as necessary to complete the process, even if it takes as long as five years." Another poll in July, this one for the Washington Post and ABC, found three in four respondents expected significantly more American deaths, yet seven in ten still believed U.S. forces should remain in Iraq"until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties." The most recent Washington Post survey, taken during the second week in August, shows the number of Americans who support the U.S. presence in Iraq--seven in ten--remains unchanged. Even a Newsweek poll taken in the aftermath of last week's U.N. bombing found that 60 percent of respondents support maintaining current force levels in Iraq for more than a year, with twice as many favoring staying ten years or more as supporting immediate withdrawal.

There is a story behind these numbers. In recent years, the public's unwillingness to tolerate combat deaths has become an article of faith for America's leaders. The first President Bush justified the decision to halt the Gulf war short of Baghdad on the grounds that doing otherwise would have entailed further American losses. President Clinton imbibed the same lesson after the October 1993 slaughter of crack American troops in Somalia, subsequently offering assurances to the public that any military action would endanger as few lives as possible. Clinton-era Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton even devised a"Dover Test" for the use of force:"Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base?" According to the tiss data, the architects of U.S. foreign policy believe the answer is no. Seventy-eight percent of officers and a nearly identical percentage of their civilian counterparts agreed with the statement:"The American public will rarely tolerate large numbers of U.S. casualties in military operations." America's foes agree as well. Prior to the first Gulf war, Saddam Hussein insisted that Americans could never tolerate"ten thousand dead in one battle." For his part, Osama bin Laden boasted that the collapse of U.S. support for the operation in Somalia" convinced us that the Americans are a paper tiger." But those who insisted the American public has no stomach for casualties were wrong then, and they are wrong now. The real challenge for America's leaders will not be convincing the public to stay the course in Iraq. It will be convincing themselves.

The public has long been less fearful of casualties than America's political and military elites assume--and, for that matter, less fearful than the elites themselves. According to polls taken by the American Institute for Public Opinion (aipo), the level of support for World War II never slipped below 75 percent, even though more than 200,000 Americans had been killed by mid-1945. World War II, of course, was the"good war." But the absence of a correlation between casualties and public support holds true even in more controversial conflicts. Survey data dating back half a century consistently shows that what determines the public's willingness to tolerate casualties has little do with casualties themselves.

Specifically, polls demonstrate that Americans will sustain battle deaths if they think the United States will emerge from a conflict triumphant, if they believe the stakes justify casualties, and if the president makes a case for suffering them. Each of these measures has important implications for the operation in Iraq."The public is defeat-phobic, not casualty-phobic," Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver conclude in their forthcoming book, Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force, which culls a mountain of data to prove the point. In Korea, for example, an aipo survey found that public support for the war in August 1950 was a sturdy 66 percent--despite the death of 5,000 American soldiers in the two-month-old war. By December 1950, however, that number had plummeted to 39 percent. Because of battle deaths? Probably not. Between November 1950, when Chinese forces intervened in the conflict, and the time of that survey, the United States suffered a series of devastating battlefield defeats. A few months later, once U.S. forces halted the Chinese offensive and launched their own, public support climbed--even as the number of American deaths passed the 20,000 mark. A 1994 rand corporation study even concluded that the Korea toll"led not to cries to withdraw but to a desire to escalate."

Even Vietnam, where the myth of a risk-averse public was born, proves nothing of the kind. There, too, the public's sensitivity to casualties depended on its faith in the eventual success of the mission. And, prior to the Tet Offensive in 1968, that faith remained substantially intact. Despite the more than 10,000 Americans killed by then, numerous opinion polls taken on the eve of Tet found a clear majority favored either continuing or escalating the war. According to a Harris Poll, 31 percent of those surveyed in mid-1967 cited American casualties as the most disturbing feature of the war. But, in the aftermath of Tet, which the media portrayed as a major defeat,"the impact of casualties on support tripled in size," according to Gelpi and Feaver. Within a month, the percentage of those most troubled by American losses rose to 44 percent. Even so, those favoring a withdrawal from Vietnam never comprised a majority before the Nixon administration's decision to"Vietnamize" the war, when withdrawal became official policy.

Moreover, victory isn't the only source of public resolve in the face of battle losses--a fact that has become fairly obvious throughout the past decade."[W]hen important interests and principles have been at stake, the public has been willing to tolerate rather high casualties," Eric Larson writes in his 1996 book, Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations."In short, when we take into account the importance of the perceived benefits, the evidence of a recent decline in the willingness of the public to tolerate casualties appears rather thin."

The paramount example of this tolerance was the 1991 Gulf war. As John Mueller's book Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War shows, American casualty estimates prior to Operation Desert Storm ranged into the tens of thousands. The public was well aware of these figures. A poll taken by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation on the eve of the ground war found that 67 percent knew about a Pentagon estimate forecasting 30,000 American deaths. Far from prompting a collapse in support, a Gallup Poll taken during the same period reported that a majority felt the Gulf crisis was worth going to war over, even if that meant up to 40,000 American deaths. Looking back at the polls, Larson details how the public's willingness to incur casualties derived from the promotion of a"number of foreign policy goals or principles in the Gulf that majorities of the public generally thought were very important"--among them, to deter further aggression by Iraq, to prevent Saddam from developing weapons of mass destruction, and to reverse Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

Needless to say, the first Bush administration tirelessly advertised each of these interests--just as the present Bush administration mounted a p.r. offensive to explain to the country its reasons for going to war in Iraq. The point may seem obvious, but members of the public do not pinpoint vital interests by themselves; the president usually does it for them. Or doesn't. In Lebanon, for example, public support for the U.S. intervention increased after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. But, when President Reagan backed away from the operation, that support evaporated. Similarly, when 18 Rangers were killed in Mogadishu, NBC, ABC, and CNN polls found that 61, 56, and 55 percent, respectively, favored sending more troops to Somalia. That support, too, disappeared as it became clear the president himself no longer backed the mission. Numbers like these lead the Program on International Policy Attitudes' (pipa) Steve Kull and Clay Ramsay, writing in the book Public Opinion and the International Use of Force, to conclude that"polls show little evidence that the majority of Americans will respond to fatalities by wanting to withdraw U.S. troops immediately and, if anything, are more likely to want to respond assertively." Neither Reagan nor Clinton, however, made use of the public's inclination.

Reagan and Clinton may have been reticent because the group most likely to recoil from casualties happens to be the very elites who attribute the tendency to the public. The tiss survey found that military leaders consistently show less tolerance for casualties than civilian leaders, who, in turn, show less tolerance for casualties than the mass public. (In Iraq, for example, the tiss survey showed the public would tolerate, as a mean figure, 29,853 deaths, civilian elites would tolerate 19,045, and military elites would tolerate 6,016.) Hence, when policymakers use casualties as an excuse for inaction, Gelpi and Feaver argue,"they are either tying their own hands or responding to constraints imposed by the military." Tying their own hands because, among civilian policymakers, assumptions about a battle-shy public and the steep political cost of casualties have been axiomatic ever since Vietnam. The"lessons" of Vietnam have also become canonical among senior officers, who fear that, as in Southeast Asia, they will be the ones blamed for battlefield losses. Nor, in the years since, have skittish commanders-in-chief or generals done anything to relieve that fear. On the contrary, they have instilled in the officer corps a zerodefect mentality, under whose terms casualties have become synonymous with failure. During the '90s, for example, the core mission of the Army's European Command was"To Protect and Take Care of the Force."

All this may seem like proof of heightened moral awareness on the part of America's leaders--and, in the sense that casualty-phobia translates into a greater concern for human life, it surely is. But, in other ways, it has ensnarled the United States in thorny dilemmas to which these same leaders have yet to provide an adequate response. The habit of advertising our fears as if they were virtues has emboldened the likes of bin Laden, Saddam, and Slobodan Milosevic. Closer to home, casualty-phobia has confused the military's mission and ethos, which is to defend the nation, not itself. It has also led to operations like Kosovo, in which civilians below paid the bill for orders that kept U.S. bombers safely above an altitude of 15,000 feet, and the 1998 missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, where the availability of risk-free weapons allowed the White House to employ force casually and without due reflection.

Fortunately, the Bush team has begun to jettison the elites' casualty obsession. To be sure, the White House has benefited from a hardening of public resolve in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Before the war began in Afghanistan, for example, polls showed large majorities supporting military action even if it meant thousands of American deaths and a war that lasted years. Still, fearing casualties and a repeat of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials relied too heavily on proxies and air power. But, after the battle of Tora Bora, where the proxy strategy enabled hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives to flee the area, the United States reversed course, putting large numbers of troops on the ground. Nor did the administration bend when its risky thrust toward Baghdad cost the lives of as many as twenty Americans on a single day. Neither, for that matter, has the war's aftermath prompted any public second thoughts from the president."There are some who feel like, that if they attack us, that we may decide to leave prematurely," Bush said last month."They don't understand what they're talking about."

The magic question, of course, is whether the public agrees with the president. The evidence so far suggests that it does. To begin with, unlike Nixon in Vietnam, Reagan in Lebanon, and Clinton pretty much everywhere, the public trusts and approves of Bush's stewardship of postwar Iraq. A CBS News poll taken during the second week of August [2003] found that 57 percent approve of"the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq," while a Newsweek poll, taken after last week's bombing, put that number at 54 percent."So long as the president is not panicking at the sight of casualties, neither will the public," says Feaver. Far from panicking, Bush has been criticized for excessive bellicosity--his"bring 'em on" taunt, for example. Perhaps not the wisest choice of words, but Bush's challenge to the Iraqi guerrillas did telegraph a certain resolve. Responding to the attack on the U.N. headquarters compound, he made the point more eloquently. The bombers, Bush said,"are finding that our will cannot be shaken. Whatever the hardships, we will persevere."

Second, according to the most recent polls, a majority continues to interpret restoring stability in Iraq as a vital national interest. Hence the 58 percent who told the Wall Street Journal/NBC survey that American troops should remain in Iraq for"as long as necessary, ... even if it takes as long as five years" and the 72 percent who told the Washington Post/ABC poll that they should stay in Iraq"until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties." This, despite the fact that 75 percent of respondents to the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll believe that"most of the challenges in Iraq remain ahead." Nor does the public have any illusions about the human cost this will entail."There is a public perception that we cannot afford to lose in Iraq," says Andrew Krepinevich, the author of an influential book on counter-insurgency strategy and director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,"and the public's tolerance of casualties will be considerably stronger as a result."

Bush's vulnerability comes from the growing number of Americans who see events going the wrong way on the ground. In the most recent CBS News poll, only 45 percent see"the United States in control of events taking place in Iraq"--a figure that has declined from 71 percent in April. Similarly, 53 percent of respondents to the latest pipa survey think the"process of rebuilding Iraq is going 'not very well' or 'not at all well.'" These findings do spell trouble for the president. For public willingness to tolerate casualties remains as much a function of success as anything else. And, for the time being at least, poll respondents believe that the United States has yet to achieve it in Iraq.

How exactly, then, does the public measure success in Iraq? Opinion surveys point to America's ability to promote stability and democracy as two key tests. Of course, measuring order is easier than measuring democracy, and, given polls that show the public believes the United States has lost control of events there, it may also be the more important measure. Rampaging mobs, acts of sabotage, incendiary clerics, terrorist bombings--these are the sorts of things Americans can do without on the evening news. And, if the president intends to sustain public support, he will have to see that Iraq does without them as well. Even if that means more money, more troops, and, yes, more casualties.

Related LinksRick Shenkman: Bush's Speech: Why It Failed