Wednesday, September 3, 2003

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Correcting some public opinion misperceptions

Lawrence Kaplan has an excellent New Republic essay on public tolerance for casualties during war (subscription required). Elites generally assume that the public is unwilling to tolerate combat deaths -- here's an example from the Economist a few weeks ago:

America has changed since September 11th. The new mood allows for more nationalism, more assertiveness, less patience with allies, a greater readiness to go it alone. But there is no appetite to spend a lifetime in a sweaty country in the service of a noble cause. The memories of Vietnam, where every effort to withdraw or hand over to the locals seemed to lead to further entanglement, have not departed.

Kaplan's essay is essentially a literature review demonstrating plainly that this assumption is a crock of bull@#$t. The key grafs:

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....

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.

Another excellent and recent source of data on this point is Steven Kull and I.M. Destler's Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism.

A perusal of these books also reveals another interesting fact -- the American public is far more enthusiastic about multilateralism than some experts
believe. Beyond the Kull and Destler book, go check out this paper by Benjamin Page and Dukhong Kim for more on American support for international cooperation.

posted by Dan on 09.03.03 at 11:04 AM


One thing that some of the pundits seem to lack is a good sense of history. Mead's article on the Jacksonian tradition in American foreign policy has a few paragraphs in the beginning which really highlight the extent to which Americans can be a bloody minded bunch, when their ire is raised.

To further amplify this, consider the fact that we fought a bitterly opposed war in a truly peripherial state with ill-guided military leadership bound in a diplomatic straight-jacket (how's that for crummy prose?).

We lost tens of thousands of soldiers. And we did it for a decade.

We're remarkably casualty intolerant when we don't have a clear goal. In Iraq, we've got a goal (regardless of whether or not its achievable or being pursued correctly) and that makes a lot of difference.

posted by: Anticipatory Retaliation on 09.03.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Regarding military intervention, much research has shown that a large majority of the U.S. public favors military intervention only if it meets all these criteria:
1. Named and identified leader(s) are rogues guilty of one or more of these heinous crimes: (a) international terrorism or drug trafficking, (b) gross violations of human rights, (c) acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
2. Non-military means: diplomacy, peace building, negotiations, have been tried, given a real chance to succeed, and have not stopped the rogue behavior.
3. A key group of countries and UN resolutions support the proposed military intervention.
4. A high-minded goal is portrayed as part of the purpose of the intervention.
Surprisingly, the U.S. public is not averse to taking considerable casualties and costs of an intervention, if all the above conditions are met. The elite and media view that the U.S. public will not accept casualties is false.

July 2002
taking a look back at the various rationales for the Iraq war, I sometimes wonder...

posted by: markus on 09.03.03 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

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