Public support appears aim of war plan

December 04, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The 35-page document released last week by the White House before President Bush's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy is called "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." But a more immediate goal appeared to be victory at home, in the latest of numerous attempts by the administration to turn around flagging public support for the war.

While White House officials said the National Security Council document contained contributions from many federal departments, its creation and presentation strongly reflected the public opinion research of Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the NSC staff as a special adviser in June.

Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented to administration officials their analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believe it would succeed.

That finding, which is questioned by other political scientists, was clearly reflected in Bush's speech, in which he used the word "victory" 15 times and the podium was festooned with signs declaring "Plan for Victory." The strategy document was infused with the same mantra, with "victory" repeated six times in the table of contents alone and sections labeled "Victory in Iraq Is a Vital U.S. Interest" and "Our Strategy for Victory Is Clear."

"This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency," said Christopher F. Gelpi, Feaver's colleague at Duke and co-author of the research on American tolerance for casualties. "The Pentagon doesn't need the president to give a speech and post a document on the White House Web site to know how to fight the insurgents. The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."

Gelpi said he had not discussed the document with Feaver, who declined to be interviewed.

A lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, Feaver, 43, is the author of three books on civilian-military relations. He worked on military issues on President Clinton's National Security Council staff in 1993 and 1994, but he has written critically of Clinton and other Democrats and sympathetically of Bush in The New York Times and other publications.

He was recruited by the White House this year as public support for the war declined steadily in the face of mounting casualties and costs. A Newsweek poll this month showed that 30 percent of those interviewed said they approved of the president's handling of the war, while 65 percent disapproved - an almost exact reversal of the numbers in May 2003, shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Wednesday underscored the need for a clear, straightforward summary of the administration's Iraq policy. Asked whether they thought the president had a plan to achieve victory in Iraq, 55 percent said no and 41 percent said yes.

Based on their study of poll results from the first two years of the war, Gelpi, Feaver and Jason Reifler, then a Duke graduate student, took issue with what they described as the conventional wisdom since the Vietnam War - that Americans will support military operations only if U.S. casualties are few.

They found that public tolerance for the human cost of combat depended on two factors: a belief that the war was a worthy cause, and, even more important, a belief that the war was likely to be successful.

In their paper, to be published soon in the journal International Security, Feaver and his colleagues wrote: "Mounting casualties did not produce a reflexive collapse 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."

The role of Feaver in preparing the strategy document came to light through a quirk of technology. In a portion of the document usually hidden from public view but accessible with a few keystrokes, the plan posted on the White House Web site showed the document's originator, or "author," in the software's designation, to be "feaver-p."

According to Matt Rozen, a spokesman for Adobe Systems, which makes the Acrobat software used to prepare the document, that entry indicated Feaver created the original document that, with additions and editing, was posted on the Web. There is no way to know from the text how much he wrote.

Asked about who wrote the document, a White House official said Feaver had helped conceive and draft the plan, though the official said a larger role belonged to another NSC staff member, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and her staff. Because the plan is meant as a statement of unified administration policy, the official would describe the individual roles only on condition of anonymity.

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