How much influence should public opinion have on the conduct of a war? The answer, in the United States, at least, appears to depend on ones perspective on power. Those in power tend to argue that decisions in wartime need to be insulated from the passions of the mob, as Voltaire would have it. That is, of course, unless the masses overwhelmingly support the enterprise. Those in opposition, generally, feel quite the opposite, and if public attitudes toward the war move from support to opposition, poll numbers get thrown about as though the Constitution requires the electorate to regularly reaffirm confidence in the commander-in-chief’s direction. Something precisely like this has been at work in America since 2002.
It doesn’t work that way, of course. Elections in America are cyclical, and the presidential one in 2004 (not the midterm elections of 2006) provided the American public with its last direct opportunity to change the Bush administration’s course in Iraq. As shown by the outcome of the executive-legislative tussle over inserting a withdrawal timetable into stopgap war funding measure (NYT), even an executive branch skimming the tree tops in approval rating terms holds the upper hand in war policy. The midterm election provided opponents of the direction of the war with a platform, but with only the bluntest and politically unpalatable of instruments (a complete funding cutoff) with which to directly affect Iraq policy. At the end of the day, most of the Democratic lawmakers behind the strategy of insisting on a timetable in exchange for the administration’s $100 million funding ultimately could not face the prospect of being accused of cutting off troops in the field over a Memorial Day weekend (Newsweek).
But public opinion certainly does bear on such decisions eventually. John Mueller, an expert on presidents, war, and public opinion at Ohio State, compared the trajectory of support for the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq in Foreign Affairs. “Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War,” Mueller wrote. That was written December 2005. How prescient he seems now. Last week’s polls show the war’s popularity at an all-time low. Depending on the poll, some 72 percent (CBS/NYTimes) or perhaps 65 percent (AP/Ipsos) of the public now disapproves of the president’s handling of the war.
The fact is, presidents retain the right to ignore public opinion, just as they may choose not to heed the advice of their senior military commanders (Foreign Affairs). They may also decide to be selective in what they take from public opinion indicators. Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat inhabiting the White House during the Vietnam years, had his staff summarize letters on the war received at the White House. They turned out to be more hawkish than general opinion trends, historians now believe, leading to a situation in which the Johnson administration could offer “an interpretation of public opinion which reflected a more potentially positive environment than actually existed.”
Bush has confronted far more direct skepticism, and for far longer, than Johnson did. Last week, after a reporter noted the polls had turned against the war and questioned his credibility, Bush made it clear he did not see public opinion as a major factor. “I have an obligation to tell the truth to the American people as to the nature of the enemy. And it’s unpleasant for some. I fully recognize that after 9/11, in the calm here at home, relatively speaking, caused some to say, well, maybe we’re not at war. I know that’s a comfortable position to be in, but that’s not the truth.”