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April 09, 2007

What A Public Wants

I'm comforted by the polling Matt brings up showing Americans overwhelmingly prefer a diplomatic approach to Iran, but I'm not sure the numbers prove that the type of diplomatic rhetoric they'll end up voting for doesn't contain a bit of wild-eyed aggression. A "one best way" poll, after all, is fairly unresponsive to the campaign at hand, wherein all candidates profess diplomatic intentions but some make very clear that they're willing to deploy the B-52s if Iran doesn't capitulate.

All this got me thinking, though. Whatever the polls say, it certainly seems that Americans rarely oppose aggressive foreign policy choices. Has there been a conflict in modern times -- say, since World War II? -- where the president and his party were pushing for a war but the public remained unmoved and the elites finally dropped the subject? In other words, has the public's preference for diplomacy ever overwhelmed a president's determination to strike? I can't think of an instance where it has, though I'd say the current situation with Iran is actually running somewhat along those lines.

April 9, 2007 | Permalink


Neither the Persian Gulf War nor (especially) the Kosovo War were actually polling very well when initiated. Both became popular only awfterwards when they were seen as successful.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 9, 2007 12:49:02 AM

Been a long time since I've seen this literature. Best recollection is that the public does not always support aggressive foreign policy choices before they begin. But once they start, or just before they start when they are clearly about to happen, they rally to the tune of 80 or 90%.

And then if the war becomes four year quagmires and it becomes clear that every fucking thing that was said in favor of the war was bald faced fucking lie, and the situation begins degenerating into a genocidal civil war, and the policy-makers double down and kids they know start coming back blown into polytrauma, they stop supporting the war. And then they support pull-out and another several hundred thousand people get fucking slaughtered like goats. And then the public has a snack and watches American Idol.

Of course the data set for the last situation is somewhat limited.

Posted by: R/W | Apr 9, 2007 1:03:30 AM

Off the top of my head I can think of no examples that fit your description, but obviously Gulf War I, the Kosovo War, and Haiti represent cases where things polled poorly, but right before (Haiti) or right after (Kosovo) conflict started, support went up.

Look at what happened when Nixon expanded the Vietnam war into Cambodia. What was public opinion? What was public opinion post Kent State riots? What was leadership's reaction? That's the closest you can get to today's situation methinks.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 9, 2007 1:29:59 AM

Truman, MacArthur, and Eisenhower in Korea?

Nixon's shift toward Israel in 1973?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 9, 2007 1:54:04 AM

some make very clear that they're willing to deploy the B-52s if Iran doesn't capitulate

Who? I haven't noticed anyone making that clear.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 9, 2007 2:11:26 AM

It is actually really hard to come up with examples, not just of US Presidents who have been so dissuaded, but of any world leaders who have been dissuaded from military action by popular opinion. Argentina's invasion of the Falklands, the Suez invasions in '56, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon ('82 and '06), Iraq's invasion of Kuwait -- all were pretty popular in the invading states in the immediate aftermath of the attack. As things went on, they became less so, and ultimately helped bring down governments.

Not sure how the invasion of Afghanistan was seen in the USSR in '79. And who attacked first, Pakistan or India?

Posted by: mattsteinglass | Apr 9, 2007 5:32:25 AM

R/W - is "polytrauma" a real word? If not, it should be.

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Apr 9, 2007 6:22:28 AM

I can't think of any examples either. Daniel Yankelovich has written extensively on the tendency for the American public to capitulate to the President on matters of foreign policy where they might not on domestic issues, and then of course one would also have to consider the "rally round the flag" effect on public support once troops are committed to undertaking military action.

Let's not forget that while support for the Iraq war was always high in the days before invasion, on the eve of the campaign a plurality of Americans (49%) thought that we should give UN weapons inspectors more time to investigate. Once they turned on their televisions and saw the troops going into battle on the 24-hour news channels, support for the war skyrocketed.

I guess my point is that knowing full-well that once troops are sent into harm's way popular support for a military action (at least initially) will be augmented is enough of a reason not to be persuaded otherwise by opposition beforehand.

Posted by: Mr. Monday | Apr 9, 2007 8:17:23 AM

I suspect the President and elites have wanted to have many wars but never really pushed for them because they were politically unpalatable. It's my understanding that a significant amount of the elite political and intellectual wanted a much more aggressive cold war strategy than we got.

So, your question might be asking the wrong question - not whether or not the public has successfully stopped a President who tried to start a war, but whether the public has discouraged a President from ever trying.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Apr 9, 2007 8:57:39 AM

Americans like war as long as we are winning and it takes place in someone else's country. Once shots are fired, we usually become a jingoistic nation. Most of the WWII generation and half the boomers (my group) are outright hawks - even now. At the beginning, any doubts about going to war are pushed aside. Bush and Rove counted on this characteristic when making the Iraq decision. If Bush blows up some "suspect" installations in Iran, 75% of Americans will figure it was the right thing to do - especially if they watch the explosions on CNN.

Posted by: MarvyT | Apr 9, 2007 9:21:28 AM

Americans overwhelmingly prefer a diplomatic approach to Iran...

In the posts where you don't like polls, you tend to discount them as not important or in some other way delegitimize them as an indicator of direction (Leadership means doing what you think is right, etc.). When you DO like the polls, it becomes a *REAL* democracy issue and the administration should listen up and do what the public demands! I don't like mob rule, even when it serves my agenda.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 9, 2007 9:57:10 AM

I don't like mob rule, even when it serves my agenda.

You don't? What do you keep saying about same-sex marriage when you run out of arguments about its supposed harms?

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 9, 2007 11:51:56 AM

Nice work on Fred, Sanpete... 3 pointer. Fred says he has an agenda. Who could have known? Is that like the "homo sex u al agenda"?

There's a lag time (both ways) between the sentiment of the people and the DC insiders (Congress, Media, Talking Heads).

Sometimes the sentiment influences policy implementation (example: Bush was sorta forced to go to the UN on Iraq, even though he continued his war buildup).

But eventually the reality of House and Senate elections (or Presidential elections for a 2nd term) bends policy to popular will more or less. Only when the Exec. Branch doesn't give a crap about the public, a rare event, but certainly true today, does the gap become really large - in which case you see the flailing around that characterizes BushCo today.

Let's not forget that FDR faced a very large sentiment against involvement in the European part of WWII - which limited his policy choices severely - and was really only overcome when we were attacked by Japan.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 9, 2007 12:09:21 PM

damned closing tags...

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 9, 2007 12:10:48 PM

one more time... My early AM mind is unreliable LOL.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 9, 2007 12:13:01 PM

You don't? What do you keep saying about same-sex marriage when you run out of arguments about its supposed harms?

Wrong again. What *I* advocate is legislation by interested parties. If that's what you call "mob rule", then you've got more problems that what shows on the surface.

What Ezra's post advocates is action without legislation, that the administration should act on the poll for the sake of the poll. ADvocating legislation by interested parties in a democratic fashion is representative government, and the other has nothing to do with democracy.

See the difference?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 9, 2007 12:25:16 PM

Where does Ezra advocate action based on polls, Fred? You've completely made that up. What you appear to favor, in any case, is mob legislation, then, where the majority can control the lives of the minority to its liking. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 9, 2007 12:47:33 PM

Name a country. Any country. Label them an 'enemy'. Spread a little bullshit around about how awful they are. Rinse. Repeat. Opposition to violence will be completely ineffectual. That's what is called "Politics" today.

Posted by: opit | Apr 9, 2007 2:08:14 PM

Ezra, you pose an extremely interesting question. Given the context of Matt's polling numbers, I'd say the first thing be determined is whether there's been another instance where over 80% of the public favored a diplomatic solution and the Government went to war without first launching a propaganda campaign to undermine such numbers. Mark Twain wrote over a hundred years ago describing the process by which the political elites would heckle and cajole a complacent, peaceable majority into war. The process remains largely the same today.

I think it needs to be understood that a passive sentiment for peace isn't the same as an active opposition to war. Such sentiment often masks what is essentially a difference in strategy rather than goals. The public may accept the goal (disarming a foreign power) while dissenting on the best means for doing so (war vs. Diplomacy). In such instances a governing regime may judge that opposition is soft and all that is required to bring them into line is a plausible argument that Diplomacy has "failed" and war is the only available option.

Take the poll cited by Matt for example. 80% plus is an impressive figure but how would it stand up if that same group were asked if the military option should be taken off the table all together? Or if they were asked whether the US resorting to war was: Almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, almost always right, etc.?

In short, that 80% plus is a lot less comforting than it appears. Likewise, any raw numbers drawn from the past showing a majority public sentiment for diplomacy over war prior to the outbreak of hostilities would need similar analysis.

You can be sure that Administrations both past and present have been aware of such crucial distinctions and have made the most of them when bent on military adventures.

The need to fracture the reflexive sentiment for peaceful solutions is one of the reasons that so much emphasis is placed on the "bad guy" meme. It is a way of gaining consensus on the supposed purpose of the war (getting rid of the bad guy/regime change) without dispassionate debate on the practical merits of the policy goals. Once a majority agrees that a Saddam or a Noriega is a bad guy who deserves to be taken out, it becomes a debate over tactics rather than ultimate goals. The general sentiment for peace is reduce to being only nominally anti-war.

This reality is what underlies the hostility of many in the anti-war movement towards "competency" and "effectiveness" arguments that are advanced against ongoing conflicts. Such arguments assume the legitimacy of war as an instrument of policy without seriously interrogating such policy. It becomes a question of not "why" but "how".

So my response to your question is a another question. Has there ever been, in the time frame you specify, a mass sentiment in the US that was more than nominally anti-war prior to military action?

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 9, 2007 3:35:10 PM

the majority can control the lives of the minority to its liking.

Yes, we control the lives of minority drug addicts to our liking through laws enacted by a democratic process. We also control the lives of minority deadbeat dads to our liking through laws enacted by democratic process.

Your point?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 9, 2007 9:08:27 PM

You're pretty slow, Fred. As has been explained to you easily 20 times in the last six months, the cases you cite involve some harm to society. Some of the things you want to control you oppose purely for reasons of prejudice, i.e. mob sentiment. You can't show them to be harmful. Don't bother saying that drug use can't be shown to be harmful, as you always do, because that's just false.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 9, 2007 9:18:45 PM

In 1954 when France finally lost what became North Vietnam, Eisenhower sent then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to pitch the idea of invading Vietnam to leading democratic congressional leaders. They, and the public (I believe but do not have the numbers readily available), declined to support a massive U.S. operation in Indochina. Now, whether Eisenhower wanted to go to war or whether he sent the incredibly hawkish Dulles, a controversial John Bolton type figure of the time, in order to de-fang the opposition from attacking him is another question....

Posted by: Greg | Apr 10, 2007 4:26:20 AM

Some of the things you want to control you oppose purely for reasons of prejudice, i.e. mob sentiment. You can't show them to be harmful.

Mr. Sanpete,

I have looked high and low and cannot find any statute that requires that the law demostrate to you or anyone else any of these requirements. Democracy is what it is and it isn't dependent upon your rules.

If you don't like democracy, then just say so.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 10, 2007 11:21:22 AM

Give it a rest, Fred. AWOL has overused that line to such an extent I'm surprised anyone has the unmitigated gall to repeat the 'talking points' on supporting 1) democracy 2) the troops 3) any other convenient pretext.
It doesn't even constitute discussion.

Posted by: opit | Apr 10, 2007 12:04:33 PM

...supporting 1) democracy...

Yeah, who cares about democracy anymore....

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 10, 2007 5:43:02 PM

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