War and public opinion

Steven Stark

December 20, 1990|By Steven Stark

FOR OVER four months now, America's face-off with Iraq in the Mideast has dominated the news, a trend sure to continue as the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline draws closer.

But since the August dispatch of American troops to the region, much of the media analysis of the domestic political consequences of the crisis has been predicated on several false assumptions about war and public opinion.

Briefly, they are:

* Most Americans don't support our military involvement because President Bush hasn't explained his policies well.

First, despite some commentary to the contrary, polls simply don't support the assertion that Americans aren't backing administration policy. A number of recent polls has shown that Americans endorse the president's gulf actions by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.

It is true that most polls show there is confusion in the public mind about why America has dispatched troops to the region. Is it to protect our economic interests, disarm Saddam Hussein, uphold the principle of national sovereignty, or all three?

But such confusion is hardly rare in American history. A 1942 Gallup poll taken six months after Pearl Harbor showed that only 53 percent of those interviewed said they had a clear idea why the United States was fighting in World War II. Similarly, in 1967, Gallup found that only 48 percent of Americans said they had a clear idea what the Vietnam War was all about.

Unambiguous rhetoric is not one of Bush's strong points. But as Richard Morin of the Washington Post has pointed out, public confusion about our goals in the Mideast is probably attributable more to Americans' traditional insularity when it comes to foreign affairs than anything Bush has or hasn't said.

* Television coverage makes any war more unpopular.

Ever since the Vietnam War, it has been widely written that intense TV coverage of the fighting helped end that war. Thus, critics argue, if conflict breaks out in the Mideast, television will quickly turn the vast majority of Americans into doves.

Of course, television played an instrumental role in bringing Americans news about Vietnam. Coverage of the Tet offensive in 1968 and Walter Cronkite's denunciation of Lyndon Johnson were pivotal events in the history of that war.

However, there is virtually no evidence to suggest that TV coverage decreased support for the war effort. It took, after all, six or seven years for most Americans to turn against the war, and all through 1966 and 1967 a large majority of Americans supported the Johnson administration. What turned the public against the Vietnam War was not that soldiers were killed on camera but that they were being killed with no discernible prospect of victory.

Moreover, John Mueller, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, has found that popular support for the wars in Korea (a print war) and Vietnam (a TV war) tended to decrease in roughly the same fashion as casualties rose. That suggests that TV coverage of the Vietnam war made little or no difference in public opinion.

* If a war is successful, with relatively few casualties, Bush is home free with the voters.

It is certainly true that unsuccessful wars tend to topple the presidents who wage them, as any student of the presidencies of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson can attest. What is less widely acknowledged is that political leaders and parties who bring their people through a successful war are also frequently deposed, as the public turns to new leadership less concerned with problems abroad.

That is what happened in the wake of World War I -- when this country turned away from the Democrats and toward Warren Harding's "return to normalcy" -- and as World War II ended, when both the British (Labor over Conservatives in 1945) and Americans (Republicans over Democrats in Congress in 1946) threw out the party in power despite success in war. Of course, those wars lasted far longer than any conflict in the Mideast is likely to. Thus, the pent-up desire in the electorate for change simmered longer, too.

But it is still clear that after a war, the public usually desires leadership that will focus on domestic problems, if only to wipe out the unhappy memory of foreign fighting. Yet a strong domestic agenda is hardly Bush's strength, and the internal problems that were festering before August are still there.

Thus, even if Bush fights and wins decisively in the Mideast, with few casualties, he could well find himself before a 1992 electorate that, having followed him into battle, will support him no longer. If political survival is the key, Bush may well need to avoid war altogether.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe. 4

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