Tuesday, March 7, 2006

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How IR theory becomes OBE

There is a constant refrain for IR scholars to study "the real world," to analyze real world problems, generate policy-relevant theory, create work that speaks to the here and now. And, in truth, although the field can be faddish, there are ways in which, like many other disciplines, it moves slowly.

I bring this up because of Chris Gelpi, Peter Feaver, and Jason Reifler have an article in the Winter 2005/2006 issue of International Security entitled "Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq." The nut of their argument:

In this article, we argue that the public will tolerate signi™cant numbers of U.S. combat casualties under certain circumstances. To be sure, the public is not indifferent to the human costs of American foreign policy, but casualties have not by themselves driven public attitudes toward the Iraq war, and mounting casualties have not always produced a reduction in public support. The Iraq case suggests that under the right conditions, the public will continue to support military operations even when they come with a relatively high human cost.

Our core argument is that the U.S. publicís tolerance for the human costs of war is primarily shaped by the intersection of two crucial attitudes: beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war, and beliefs about a warís likely success. The impact of each attitude depends upon the other. Ultimately, however, we find that beliefs about the likelihood of success matter most in determining the publicís willingness to tolerate U.S. military deaths in combat.

Our findings imply that the U.S. public makes reasoned and reasonable judgments about an issue as emotionally charged and politically polarizing as fighting a war. Indeed, the public forms its attitudes regarding support for the war in Iraq in exactly the way one should hope they would: weighing the costs and benefits. U.S. military casualties stand as a cost of war, but they are a cost that the public is willing to pay if it thinks the initial decision to launch the war was correct, and if it thinks that the United States will prevail.

This thesis caused quite a sir a few months back, when Bush was outlining the "National Strategy for Victory In Iraq." I wrote then:
The assumption underlying Feaver and Gelpi's hypothesis is so simple that it's never stated in the article -- if a sufficiently large majority opposes an ongoing military intervention, any administration will have to withdraw regardless of the strategic wisdom of such a move. This is why, I suspect, the administration reacts so badly whenever it deals with domestic criticism about the war -- it recognizes that flagging domestic support will translate into a strategic straitjacket....

The Feaver/Gelpi solution to this conundrum is to have the President spell out a clear definition for victory. And my suspicion is that they're right -- so long as that definition contains criteria that can be verifiable by non-governmental sources.

Three months ago, the Feaver/Gelpi thesis was politically controversial. Now it's OBE -- overtaken by events. Given the current state of affairs in Iraq, public opinion has already rendered its judgment on what's happening there. I don't think the administration will succeed in translating those peceptions into any definition of victory that I'm familiar with.

So, In between the new story on this article, and the widespread availability of the article itself, the real world has moved on.

This does not mean, by the way, that thesis contained in the paper is wrong. It's just that it's no longer politically salient.

posted by Dan on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM


Current state of affairs?

posted by: Thomas Esmond Knox on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

I am pretty sure that at least the part about likelihood of success (i..e. public will tolerate high casualties if there is a 'light at the end of the tunnel) has been known for quite some time. I remember having a conversation about this 2-3 years ago at a conference.

The rightness/wrongness seems a new angle. I suspect w/o having read this paper, that wrightness/wrongness confounds with likelihood of success (i.e. 'good war' are easy ones) Maybe the authors controlled for this. I wonder even more, did they take media coverage into account in the publlic tolerance for casualties. The Bush administration has been very good at managing media -- e.g. not allowing pictures of the 'caskets' (there is some obscure military term for these) coming home. If people have to really search out info on casualties, if they are not bombarded by pictures of the dead coming home, then it seems to me they will be less intolerant of the cost of the war.

On the point of salience, however. Science -- even social science-- is supposed to be cummulative. When the next opportunity to have a war like this comes along (and it wont be too long in coming), some junior policy analyst during a literature review should be able to find these results and report them to his political bosses -- so they know (a) how to manage expectations of victory or (b) whether the (seeming) likelihood of success is great enough to support an effort long enough to achieve the desired result.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

When I first saw the headline "How IR theory becomes OBE" I thought you referred to the "Order of the British Empire", but I guess it's unlikely to get knighted by the Queen as IR theorist...

posted by: ab on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

ab -- I initially had the same thought.

But here is an IR academic who actually has the OBE . Nice guy, too, to underling graduate students.


posted by: Mitchell Young on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

OBE = Out of body experience?
OBS = Outward Bound Singapore? (that's what Google tells me)

I give up.

posted by: b. phillips on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

Oh, sorry. OBE = overtaken by events... OBS = typo, perhaps.

posted by: b. phillips on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]


I disagree - there is no dichotomy between the two articles - Feaver's point is still salient.

The American people's support for a war depends on their perception of progress, and that is influenced as much by leadership as by events.

President Bush is a case study of Presidential leadership failure, and it is his failure that the public is reacting to.

He does not try to build domestic support for the war - in particular he does not do so personally. He continually cedes the initiative to his enemies and just reacts to them on as-needed and fitful basis. Why this is so doesn't matter.

What is important, and it is critically important, is that his complete failure to "use the bully pulpit" has resulted in a complete failure by a war President to establish a personal relationship with the American people.

And they've tuned him out. It no longer matters what he says because they're not listening anymore. He's said nothing for so long that the American people no longer believe he has anything to say.

One of the things he hasn't said is "victory". He doesn't believe in victory so neither do they.

It looks very much like the Bush administration is experiencing full-bore Vietnam syndrome in the war on terror overall. I.e., the Bush administration is "trying not to lose" as opposed to "trying to win".

The American people are turning against the war because they rightly perceive that President Bush is no longer trying to win.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

"Our findings imply that the U.S. public makes reasoned and reasonable judgments about an issue"

Saddam/911 link = "reasoned"?

The reason the support for the war is flagging is that public preception is closing in on facts and departing the administrations pre-war sales pitch.

posted by: centrist on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

Hi Dan:

This, as you note, is a timely, policy-relevant topic, but it's premature to say that it's no longer politically salient. The Feaver/Gelpi thesis is good a priori and fairly robust historically. Yet, it's important to take a close look at what the opinion data say. Just looking at Richard Morin's analysis of the Post's recent data are indicative. Never discount the margin of error (+/-3%), which means support could be as high as 45 percent (or even higher if one considers that these results could be outside the 95 percent confidence interval). Also, take a look at the individual questions items in the survey: "Costs" could mean financial costs, as well as human. Other surveys (I think some NYT polls, for example) ask if battle casualties have been too high. This WP poll, furthermore, says that fully half the public believes Iraq has contributed to U.S. long-term security. Moreover, very few people are calling for an immediate withdrawal -- just 33 percent -- which is a key question to look at when assessing casualty sensitivity (it gets closer to assessing a Somalia syndrome). Since 2003, we've seen a steady decline in support, and that may or may not be due simply to casualties. Earlier comments above about the administration's failure to build the case for the war should be noted. Although be careful with the Vietnam analogy (e.g., John Mueller's "The Iraq Syndrome"). Iraq is not Vietnam, although we do need a better marketing campaign for the current deployment (see Melvin Laird, "Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005). Finally, note the public support for the war in Iraq may rebound, especially if we see major successes (as Feaver/Gelpi predict) and with the further consolidation of Iraq's democratic regime generally.

posted by: Donald Douglas on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

Suppose Tom Holsinger is right, and Bush notices it, and he starts talking about victory.

That's likely to get him a strictly temporary boost. But what happens in 3 months when there's still no sign of victory?

The people who're talking about victory wind up talking about victory in ten years or twenty years -- that is, beyond the horizon. It does Bush no good to talk about victory in ten years. And it does him no good to talk about victory in three years when there's no hope of victory in 3 years outside an opium dream.

So Bush quite reasonably doesn't do either one. He'll start talking about victory just when he needs a temporary boost in public opinion. It would waste the effect to do it a day sooner.

posted by: J Thomas on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]


My point is that it no longer matters what Bush says, because they ain't listenin' no more. He was silent too long.

I suspect that even deeds by the Bush administration won't change this. It may be that the public will give Bush credit for success, but IMO they won't pay attention to what he says even then.

But it may also be that the public will NOT give Bush credit for success at this point - that they'll blame him for what goes wrong without crediting him for what goes right. That has happened when a President sufficiently honks off the American people.

We shall find out whether President Bush's leadership failures have gotten him into that dreadful position.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

The mystery pollster had a post about the Feaver-Gelpi work a while back. Seems that there is disagreement about their work in the academic community.


posted by: someone on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

Tom Holsinger, what you say makes sense, and I rather hope you're correct. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving politician.

If only we'd gotten this result 4 years ago, when it would have done more good....

posted by: J Thomas on 03.07.06 at 12:48 AM [permalink]

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