Saturday, December 3, 2005

If You Tell Them Often Enough…

The latest strategy from the White House to gain public support is to convince the public that we are going to achieve Victory.

There could be no doubt about the theme of President Bush’s Iraqi war strategy speech on Wednesday at the Naval Academy. He used the word victory 15 times in the address; “Plan for Victory” signs crowded the podium he spoke on; and the word heavily peppered the accompanying 35-page National Security Council document titled, “Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.”

In other words, if you tell the American people often enough and loudly enough that we are winning the war and that we will achieve “victory,” that is enough to keep Bush’s poll numbers from sliding into the sub-zero zone. Never mind that there is no real plan for winning the war or even defining what “victory” in this case is. Right now there seems to be a rather circular definition of it; we will leave when the Iraqi army is ready to fend for themselves, but they won’t be ready to fend for themselves until we leave…

The architect of this Panglosian theory is Dr. Peter Feaver (I kid you not), “a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.”

Despite the president’s oft-stated aversion to polling, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an 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 believed it would ultimately succeed.

That finding, which is questioned by other political scientists, was clearly behind the victory theme in the speech and the plan, in which the word appears six times in the table of contents alone, including sections titled “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, Dr. 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.”


Based on their study of poll results from the first two years of the war, Dr. Gelpi, Dr. 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 American 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, “Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” which is to be published soon in the journal International Security, Dr. 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.”

So as long as the American people think we’re winning the war, these guys think that we won’t mind if there are high casualties. It doesn’t seem to matter what the cause is just so long as we feel good about it. It’s all about the sales pitch.

Dr. Gelpi, of Duke, said approval of the president’s handling of the war was probably close to being as low as it could go, because his core supporters were unlikely ever to abandon him. But he said the poll numbers were likely to improve only if enough Americans saw evidence that the Iraq strategy was succeeding, and if that did not happen, “it will bog down his presidency.”

Dr. Gelpi added, however, that the president’s Naval Academy speech and the strategy document “hit exactly on the themes our research said they should.”

Until now I thought we had reached the height of the pits in terms of the cynical approach this administration has to both the war and the American people. Boy, was I wrong.