The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Friday, January 24, 2003
Polling on the Vietnam War - lessons for the Iraq War?
There are parts of an interesting RAND study online which examines US polling evidence for World War 2, Korea, Vietnam and later wars, principally, it seems, to consider a possible link between the cumulative US casualties suffered at a particular point with public opinion on the war at that point.
One point arising from the Vietnam polling is that the questions Should we have got into this war? and Should we get out now? get what on the face of it are inconsistent answers. This chapter of the study shows (PDF p8) that, even as late as November 1968 (nearly a year after Tet), over 30% of respondents were in favour of escalating the war, against around 20% who wanted the US to pull out entirely.
But, in October 1968, again according to RAND (p7), only 37% answered No to the question Do you think the US made a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam?
Of course, there is really no inconsistency - the first question is practical, the second purely hypothetical . Immediate withdrawal is rarely the best, or even a feasible, solution in a war, however badly it's going. For instance, the POW question weighed heavily on US minds, during both Korea and Vietnam.
The RAND study doesn't have made a mistake numbers going back before August 1965 (by which time Lyndon Johnson had already committed the US to a big-scale commitment of combat troops). It's not clear that, given the deceptions practiced by LBJ in the period up to July 1965, such numbers would be terribly useful, though!
Moving to the present, one could expect that, in the period immediately following a US attack on Iraq, the American public would rally round the flag. If the war went badly for the US, the made a mistake numbers would start to move from a high base; and those opposing the conduct of the war would likely count as many who wanted escalation as those who wanted withdrawal.
Most importantly, it seems quite possible that it will take a long time, relative to the likely length of the war , for failures in the conduct of the war to make the poll numbers move dramatically enough to affect government action.
The Adminstration may well feel (it's the war-cheerleaders' view already) that Bush is finished politically unless he attacks Saddam in short order; and certainly, if he hasn't defeated him in good time for the start of the 2004 campaign. If he pulls back he's sunk; if he continues fighting, he might win and save himself. No-brainer.
So any pressure, to be effective, must come from outside the Administration. Congress has only a few months ago given a resounding, bipartisan endorsement to his Iraq policy: GOP members in particular may be reluctant to press the issue, for fear of accusations of disloyalty, and of coming off cowards or idiots for changing their minds at the first whiff of trouble. Again, they need time to be able to say that supervening events have changed the factual basis on which they gave their vote. Or some such nonsense.
But they also have the problem that opponents of war policy would likely be split between those wanted escalation and those wanting withdrawal. No doubt, Congress would be split, too: and, with no single line being pressed on the Administration, it would be equivalent to no pressure at all.
Will demos do it? I doubt it, somehow.
The point is that the strong and consistent numbers  opposing war without UN sanction will not deter Bush from attacking without such sanction because the underlying sentiment is not turned into effective political action. It's just so much wishful thinking - compare the large majority  between the wars opposed to lynching (even in the South) that was worth rather less than a hill of beans when it came to overcoming the opposition of the US Senate to a Federal antilynching bill.
And, if the war goes pear-shaped, there will likely be no single alternative course of action behind which opponents could rally Congress.
Needless to say, I'd be only too delighted to learn that my conclusions are quite, quite wrong....
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