We've been writing over the last few weeks about the effects of Bush's popularity on the midterms, and the effects of Iraq, Katrina and the war on terror on Bush's popularity. One recurring theme about Iraq is the concept, supported by Gens. Abizaid and Pace, and (early war supporter) Ken Pollack, is that we have to consider the term "civil war" as part of the Iraq narrative.
The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops -- and even they are merely slowing the fall. The internecine conflict could easily spiral into one that threatens not only Iraq but also its neighbors throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with instability, turmoil and war.
However, discussion of what to do next in Iraq and how to discuss new approaches and directions, an approach favored by Democrats, is being delayed by resistance from the Bush White House, who prefer to stay the course and not have Administration policy questioned. This facet of political reality was addressed in a fascinating op-ed written a few weeks ago in North Carolina's News & Observer.
The Bush administration's justification for continued operations in Iraq -- that it has become the central front in the global war on terrorism -- leaves almost no rhetorical space for an effective counterargument (the opposition party has been labeled the "Defeatocrats" and is said to be working on behalf of "al-Qaeda types"). As long as the enterprise in Iraq is deemed central to American national security, the only alternative to continued military operations is to "let the terrorists win."
William A. Boettcher is an associate professor and Michael D. Cobb is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University, and have a major interest in public opinion and public perception.
The authors predicted the Rumsfeld defense of Bush policy in this paragraph:
Attempts to reframe the American involvement in Iraq will inevitably generate an aggressive rhetorical response. Accusations of abandoning the Iraqi people, surrendering to the terrorists and enabling a humanitarian catastrophe will be leveled from critics on the left and the right. A successful reframing of the Iraq war must be combined with a disengagement strategy that addresses these concerns, but realistically acknowledges that public support for the war is waning and the Bush administration does not appear inclined to commit the resources needed to turn things around.
Note that a survey recently done by the professors on the American public's perception of Iraq, the costs of war, and the likelihood of future support is expected to be released next week (and we will cover it here). I had the opportunity to discuss this with Professors Boettcher and Cobb. What follows comes from that discussion and subsequent emails.
Professors Boettcher and Cobb:
In an editorial we wrote several weeks ago in the Raleigh, NC News and Observer, we partially explained our belief that perceptions about the mission objectives in Iraq are fluid, and opponents of the war can make more persuasive withdrawal arguments by framing the goal of staying in Iraq as preventing a civil war. We said this because past experience shows that Americans’ casualty tolerance for largely humanitarian missions is substantially lower than for restraining a threatening adversary. DemFromCT read our editorial; we talked, and he was kind enough to give us the opportunity to answer some of his questions about casualties and framing effects on public opinion about Iraq.
Conventional wisdom holds that Americans get ‘weak in the knees’ and withdraw their support for military interventions as soon as casualties occur; or, at least as casualties increase, so too does American opposition to war. We think that the core of this argument is wrong for several reasons, but neither are we persuaded by recent research suggesting that Americans are tolerant of substantial casualties so long as they believe in the prospects for success.
First of all, we are skeptical about the argument that cumulative casualties (i.e., total US military deaths to date) are the best predictor of support for the President or an on-going war (full disclosure: many scholars disagree with this claim, but there is no consensus about why the claim is unpersuasive). Studies that find casualty effects use aggregated (not surveys with individual-level) data: actual combat deaths (over time) correlated with various aggregate level measures of public opinion (over time).
One of the key problems with this approach is that the mechanism for translating the effects of an individual’s awareness of casualties to their attitudes about an on-going war is a black box. It is simply assumed that this information about casualties is widely available so that individuals accurately know about casualties and, other things being equal, the higher the casualty count, the greater the opposition to continuing to fight. Yet, we are unaware of any study showing that Americans can accurately estimate casualties, and nobody has adequately explained why perceiving more casualties (accurately or not) inevitably produces greater opposition to war.
We’ve obtained data from eight nationally representative surveys about respondents’ estimates of the cumulative casualties in Iraq, and with few qualifications most people simply don’t know how many lives have been lost. (Adam Berinsky at MIT conducted an experiment in one survey where support for the war remained unchanged even after he told respondents what the correct casualty information was.) Perhaps more damaging to the original argument, there are only weak and sporadic correlations between respondents’ perceptions of the number of total casualties and their opinions about Iraq. In a recent survey we conducted on Iraq, estimates of cumulative casualties are completely uncorrelated with retrospective or prospective evaluations of Iraq (i.e., was it the right thing to do; will we succeed in the end), and marginally correlated with positions about troop withdrawal (.08).
Another serious problem lies in the logic behind the assumption that cumulative casualties will always produce dissent. Why, for example, would a Democrat and a Republican be expected to respond equally to the same knowledge about actual combat deaths? Each person might know that about 2,700 Americans have died since we invaded Iraq, but partisans will vary in their tolerance for losing lives. Iraq is the most partisan war on record. To illustrate, what if a typical Democrat is willing to tolerate 1,000 casualties for a mission like Iraq while a Republican has the stomach for 5,000? In this case, equally accurate knowledge of 2,700 casualties will not have any systematic relationship with support for the war. One person has surpassed their tipping point for acceptable casualties while the other has yet to reach it. Even if estimates of casualties are wildly off the mark and Democrats always guess higher and Republicans always guess lower, the same principal applies: the more important thing to know about any individual is their tolerance for additional casualties.
Despite our skepticism that cumulative casualties directly affect opinions about the war, we think casualties can affect war support. Yet we also partly disagree with recent scholarship emphasizing the importance of mission success (victory) for public tolerance of casualties. The research on success that we’re referencing is being conducted by political scientists affiliated with Duke University, Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi, and Jason Reifler at Loyola, Chicago (from now on known as “FGR”) (Note: Feaver took leave from Duke to work for President Bush on the National Security Council, and is believed to be the principal actor behind the administrations’ “Plan for Victory” PR campaign). In a nutshell, they argue that Americans will tolerate substantial casualties so long as they believe the decision to go to war was correct and that the mission in Iraq will succeed (and if you believe both, you are especially tolerant of casualties). (We and others have argued their model of public opinion is based on circular logic in which tolerance for additional casualties both substitutes as a measure of support for the war and predicts support for the war; regardless of this specific flaw, it is probably impossible to determine the direction of causality—perhaps support for war determines casualty tolerance and not the other way around.)
According to FGR, the key to maintaining or building support for the war in Iraq is to stress the likelihood of succeeding. It is not a coincidence that the Bush administration’s rhetoric emphasizes “winning”, “success”, and “victory”. We think their argument is reasonable on its face but wrong for at least two reasons: Americans’ perceptions about the goal in Iraq is more important to know than whether we will succeed in the abstract, and the Bush administration is not trusted by a sizeable portion of the population to be credible when making the case for inevitable success in Iraq.
We’ll only address the first part of our critique because the second part has been discussed elsewhere and it is not our primary concern. Past research demonstrates that the primary policy objective (PPO) of a military intervention is crucial for predicting public support for the mission. At the top of the PPO list we find missions to restrain an aggressive and threatening adversary; in the middle are missions about regime change and democracy building; and at the bottom are humanitarian missions. This ranking reflects the kind of goals that Americans are willing to bear greater burdens for achieving. Thus, defeating terrorists who want to kill us is a goal worth paying the costs, and success is indeed vital. When the Bush administration frames Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism, losing this mission is inconceivable for most people and critics’ arguments to withdraw from Iraq can be dismissed persuasively as surrendering to terrorists.
Yet, there are multiple potential ways of viewing the mission in Iraq. One can talk about Iraq as a war to remove Saddam and ensure that WMD would not be used against us. Indeed, justly or unjustly, we agree that we won that phase of the war, but we think that phase is over. Another goal in Iraq is to fight insurgents who oppose our efforts to build a stable democracy. A third potential goal is to prevent civil war. This is the goal that we argue opponents of the war should highlight as our current objective because Americans are less tolerant of casualties for this kind of mission. While some conflicts, like WWII, are thought to require paying substantial costs to win, victory in other conflicts is not perceived to be essential. So long as the dominant frame of Iraq is about fighting terrorists, the goal is paramount and the costs will be tolerated. Changing the American frame of reference about Iraq (to that of a country involved in a bloody civil war) changes Americans’ tolerance for casualties and facilitates more reasoned debate about how to extract ourselves from Iraq without being accused of treason and siding with the enemy. This also highlights why success by itself is somewhat beside the point—success at what? If the goal is to prevent civil war, success (or failure) is not taken as seriously.
Our simple observation is that it will be easier for opponents of staying the course to propose and consider alternative policy options, like withdrawal, once a concerted effort is made to bury the terrorism frame and replace it with that of preventing civil war. One reason Americans have remained more ambivalent about withdrawing our troops is because of the greater success of war supporters at framing the goal in Iraq. Changing the frame to civil war will make it easier for citizens who say the war was wrong (but don’t like the prospects of losing to terrorists) to accept withdrawal as a valid option.
As for how Iraq affects the potential use of force against Iran, we are skeptical that the administration has the institutional capacity to do much right now. Regardless, they will have a much harder time persuading Americans that it is right to attack Iran. One serious problem in making shaky WMD claims about Iraq is that the administration has now spent its earned trust on these kinds of matters. Framing Iraq as an imminent nuclear threat will not be effective this time around. On the other hand, the mainstream media seem intent on repeating the mistakes in the run-up to Iraq, by placing stories benefiting the administration’s claims about Iran on the front page and burying challenges to those claims on page 17 (The Washington Post is guilty of this, and it was noticed by Drum).
The above has major implications not just for what happens with Iraq going forward, but what happens with Iran. To the extent that blogs like this can highlight Iran challenges and get these stories discussed in advance, and influence the media to do the same, we will have done this country a service, and one that the media didn't do pre-Iraq.