Defining Success in the War on Terrorism
In pursuing its war on terrorism, the Bush administration faces daunting military and diplomatic challenges. But need it also worry about mobilizing public support? With the latest polls showing the public giving the president 90 percent approval ratings and endorsing the use of force at the same level, could the White House possibly hope for any more backing from the American people?
President Bush seems to think so. Every speech he gives appears to be primarily concerned with shoring up public opinion, warning us about the difficulties ahead and purposefully praising Americans for their "patience and resolve." The administration understands a basic truth about leading a democracy in war: Public support must never be taken for granted.
Even in allegedly "easy-to-support" wars, like World War II, political leaders have found it necessary to adjust the military tempo to boost public morale. All the more so in the current campaign, where the course is uncertain and the prospects for immediate success are bleak. Ironically, the initial wave of solidarity behind Bush actually intensifies concern, because there is no way the president can hold on to stratospheric approval ratings. As his support returns to more realistic levels, the headlines could become "Bush Approval Plummets." Implicit message: "Bush Is Losing the War."
Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the public will only support policies that are "cheap" in the sense of not costing American lives. According to this view, the public rejected U.S. intervention in Somalia because American soldiers died, while it accepted our actions in Kosovo because no Americans died. This is the myth of the casualty-phobic public -- a canard that genuinely casualty-phobic policymakers have found expedient, but which has left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of terrorist attack we just witnessed. What is Osama bin Laden's fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?
Actually, the public will support even a costly war provided the stakes warrant it and the president can persuasively promise victory. In this instance, the stakes could not be higher. What is lacking is a compelling account of victory, a frame for war aims that shapes how the public will interpret unfolding events.
Early attempts at providing such a frame were hopelessly, if understandably, grandiose. The administration has appropriately retreated from its vow to "rid the world of evil," "rid the world of evildoers," or even "rid the world of terrorists." Worthy goals but simply unachievable. The...