Friday, July 08, 2005

Popularity: It Isn't Just about High School

Bush's reelection may have been ushered in with a lot of "mandate" talk, but the reality of the second term has demonstrated how truly deluded that talk was. While there have obviously been successes, Bush has found himself supporting minority and/or losing positions with surprising frequency of late, sometimes in defense of his core policy initiatives. Whether one examines his intervention in the Schiavo matter or the cold reception his Social Security privatization plan received, it is clear that his popular support has limits.

Finally, this phenomenon has begun to manifest with respect to his policies in Iraq. According to this poll, 58% of Americans now disapprove of Bush's management of the situation, 61% believe he has no clear plan going forward, and, perhaps most importantly, 53% now see the entire incursion as a mistake. This drop, and its resultant impact on his overall popularity, has been severe enough to require action on the part of the administration. Bush took to the national stage to once again conflate the 9/11 attacks with the Iraq invasion, while others employed less direct means to refocus our attention on the president's "War on Terror" credentials. So far, these efforts seem to have been for naught.

However, before we get too excited by these numbers, it is important to acknowledge that this increasing ambivalence is not an unequivocally good thing. It is, of course, satisfying to see the public at large come around to our way of thinking. And who can resist taking joy in George's misfortune. But, once we begin looking outside our narrow sphere of political interests, other issues emerge as problems for Americans of all stripes. It's worth taking an honest look at them.

First of all, the president may be the commander-in-chief, but this is not to say that his command of the military free of popular influence. Traditionally this influence is an advantage, as the nation freely unifies around the president and his cause of action. He can make calls for national sacrifice that will be gladly offered as long as his goals are considered noble. And as history has demonstrated, this noncoercive unity makes the United States a formidable adversary.

More specifically, the military options available to a president with wide support are nearly unlimited. Therefore, his strategic decisions can be wholly driven by strategic concerns, increasing the likelihood of their ultimate success. Of course, his actions must be perceived as appropriate for the support to be maintained. Nevertheless, a president leading the military in a just cause will always have room to navigate.

By contrast, certain actions are foreclosed once the nation loses its taste for war. The president is still in a position to give orders and the military will certainly still follow them. But modern wars are fought with more than just the military. Certain actions require, at a bare minimum, domestic acquiescence. As a case in point, observe the questions regarding troop levels in Iraq. At present, Bush claims that current levels are sufficient to achieve our stated goal. Whether or not this is true is beyond the scope of this essay. But it is almost certainly true that the option to massively increase current levels is off the table. As Kevin Drum has noted on several occasions (perhaps here first), we are very near our maximum practical deployment levels in Iraq. A large deployment increase would require either a massive surge of volunteers or a draft -- neither of which is likely to happen while the nation is questioning the conflict's justification. Thus, President Bush is forced to make do without, regardless of whether or not the situation demands it.

Then again, dropping support may be enough to rein in a reckless administration. If the best course of action is truly a cessation of hostilities, surely it is for the best if a president's remaining options are foreclosed. And if a conflict is unjustifiable, what could mitigate the benefit of its termination?

As it turns out, there are potentially serious ramifications for the veterans of such conflicts. On the one hand, soldiers certainly benefit when they are taken out of theater. This is even truer when the justifications for their sacrifice are revealed as weak. That said, all trips home are not equal.

For example, soldiers returning after successfully defeating the Nazi scourge during World War II were welcomed home as heroes. They were greeted with ticker-tape parades and other testimonies to their bravery and sacrifice. Moreover, they received the message that America at large stood behind their actions on the battlefield. They might have killed and maimed while they were abroad, but these actions were justified by the achievement of a greater good. This justification was an important part of their rehabilitation and reintroduction into civilian life. With it, their transition was relatively seamless.

Then, of course, there was Vietnam. Soldiers returned from this conflict to a country that was sharply divided over our involvement there. Some surely saw them as heroes, but many others saw them as complicit in a larger crime. They too had committed violent acts in service of their country. But unlike their forefathers in World War II, they received no absolution for these acts. Instead, they were forced to cope with the reality that these violent acts served no greater purpose. Without this justification, these soldiers were more likely to develop trauma disorders upon their return and, in the end, many did. This was not the only reason for the increased manifestation of PTSD during the Vietnam era, but it was an important contributing factor.

Now, we are unlikely to make the same mistakes when our soldiers return home this time. Our support of the soldiers is unmitigated, even if we opposed the conflict itself. However, this is not sufficient to deflect the consequences of the combat experience. World War II veterans were told: "you sacrifice and killed -- but you did so to avert a far greater evil." The veterans of the Iraq war will be told: "you loyally followed orders -- but your actions served no great purpose." You can dress that message up if you want, but you can't substantially change it. And if the soldiers do not believe that there was justification behind their actions, they will suffer.

And so, on the one hand, there is satisfaction to be had in the waning support for this immoral conflict. But, now that we are there, there are consequences to ending things in this manner. On balance, I would agree that almost anything that quickly brings this conflict to an amicable conclusion is worth pursuing. Yet, I must acknowledge that there will be consequences for our souring appetites. Ultimately, the responsibility for these consequences belongs to those who led us here in the first place. But, we should all prepare to face what's next. Because, like it or not, that's where we are headed.

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