In Our View for Wednesday — November 30, 2005

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 29, 200

On Wednesday, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., President George W. Bush is scheduled to kick off yet another effort to sell the American people on the wisdom of staying the course in Iraq. The president, who has made similar pitches before friendly military audiences, is expected to portray Iraq as a key battleground in the overall war on terror.

But polls suggest the public isn’t buying it. And if an article in the current edition of the influential magazine Foreign Affairs is correct, no amount of persuasion is likely to change that.

The Wall Street Journal and the Harris Poll reported last week that 63 percent of the U.S. public wants U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of next year. Two weeks earlier, the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll had found only 52 percent of the public favoring withdrawal by the end of 2006. Significantly, the depth of the opposition is also increasing, with more than half of those who oppose the war saying they’re “angry” about it.

Mr. Bush and his strategists plan to use the weeks before Christmas to turn opinion around. But John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University and an expert on war and public opinion, writes in Foreign Affairs that once American public opinion turns against a war, no amount of presidential rhetoric is enough to reverse its course.

Iraq is the third war – Korea and Vietnam were the first two – in the last 50 years to claim at least 300 U.S. lives, Mr. Mueller writes. “American public opinion became a key factor in all three wars,” he says, “and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes.

“The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq is how precipitously American public support has dropped off. Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War. And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.”

Moreover, Mr. Mueller suggests, “the impact of deteriorating support will not end when the war does. In the wake of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the American public developed a strong aversion to embarking on such ventures again. A similar sentiment – an ‘Iraq syndrome’ – seems to be developing now, and it will have important consequences for U.S. foreign policy for years after the last American battalion leaves Iraqi soil.”

Public opinion could have important consequences before then, specifically, before next November’s elections. Mr. Bush is not the only politician in Washington who seems oblivious to the fact that most Americans are fed up with Iraq. As Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations last week, “Those of us in Washington have fallen behind the debate that is taking place across America on Iraq. We are failing to provide leadership.”


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