The Role of Public Opinion in Iraq and Vietnam

What difference does popular dissatisfaction with the war make in the president’s prosecution of it? So far, looks like none.

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The relationship between a war and popular opinion is a complicated matter in any democracy. Democratic leaders almost always ride a wave of patriotic fervor into battle and then try to surf it long enough to assure victory. But whatever wave George W. Bush rode into Baghdad has long ago dried up in the desert.

The public has deserted Bush on the war—in part because of its lack of progress and in part because it has been so dishonestly defended. Bush has said American soldiers are not leaving Iraq so long as he remains president, and for once, I believe him. But the question remains: what difference does popular dissatisfaction with the war make in the president’s prosecution of it? So far, it looks like there may not be one.

Americans long ago tired of this war. A majority of Americans began calling the war “a mistake” in mid-2004 when they started to realize that the regime change they signed up for had become an occupation without much in the way of a strategy or even a clearly definable goal. That was right after the 9/11 Commission reported that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with pre-war Iraq. Public opinion fluctuated after that point, but since mid-2005—that is, nearly two years ago—the majority of Americans consistently agreed the war is a mistake. And when the president is involved, the results are even more striking. An Associated Press poll shows that a majority of Americans have disapproved of the president’s Iraq policy since 2004.

Any one poll at any one time may be merely a snapshot of public opinion at a given moment, but these polls were taken over a period of time with attention paid to asking the same question. Bush’s few remaining defenders continue to blame an alleged liberal media conspiracy for these bad numbers. But the fact is that it is all but impossible to find a single significant success story anywhere in Iraq that makes good on the promises that were made when the invasion began. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz touched on this challenge two years ago, but at roughly the same moment political scientist John Mueller penned an article in Foreign Affairs describing how “Iraq syndrome” mimics the plunging support for the Korean and Vietnam wars for which there is no cure.

I first encountered Mueller’s work in college when I was studying public opinion on Vietnam. Sadly, it’s more relevant today than it was back then when Ronald Reagan was unsuccessfully seeking to mislead the nation into war in Central America. But Reagan had no 9/11 to exploit, and Bush has managed to create a situation in Iraq that, with the single exception of casualty numbers, is worse in every way than Vietnam.

A 2005 comparison between Vietnam-era Gallup polls and those of today indicates that while most scholars tie declining public opinion to the number of casualties in Korea and Vietnam, public opinion on Iraq has turned more quickly than during past wars. (Mueller’s book-length examination posits a near-perfect correlation between Korea and Vietnam based on American deaths.) It is indeed dire news for the White House and the Republican party that opinion has turned so strongly against Bush’s war even though numerically there is an almost insignificant number of American deaths compared with Vietnam and there is no large and vocal antiwar movement.

The war itself does not appear to be improving either. Recent reports indicate that the escalation isn’t preventing violence, which Iraqi intelligence believes is in part because “Al Qaeda was in effect surging at the same time in Iraq to counteract the American program, damping any immediate gains.” The president has also recently appointed a “war czar” to coordinate policy on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving rise to questions about just what he thinks his own job description might be.

At the same time, a majority of the Iraqi parliament has agreed that the United States should set a timeline for withdrawal from their country—probably the only thing a country in a virtual state of civil war can agree on. This, incidentally, sets up Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been a strong war supporter and a critic of the Iraqi government’s failures, for a real accountability moment. He told reporters that “[I]f [the Iraqi parliament] vote[s] to ask us to leave, we’ll be glad to comply with their request.” Well, we’ll see. And we’ll see if the mainstream media can remember this long enough to report it when the next funding vote comes.

And a vote there will be. In response to the president’s recent spending bill veto, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, voted for a bill cutting funding for the war by next March. The bill lost 67 to 29 with 19 Democrats voting against it, but Clinton is also proposing a bill to revoke the Congress’ permission to wage this war in the first place. Other bills abound, and the options range from benchmarks to full funding. But the sad fact is that if the president is telling the truth about not leaving Iraq, period, then his ego simply couldn’t take it.

Just this week, the eloquent war critic and veteran Professor Andrew J. Bacevich lost his only son First Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich to George W. Bush’s stubborn refusal to face up to reality. He was not the first brave young man to die because our president refuses to admit a mistake, and sadly, he won’t be the last.

So what can the public do? Short of demanding impeachment, I’m afraid not much. It took 40 years and one horrific terrorist attack for us to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. But it is not a history we are condemned to repeat if we stop failing to hold our leaders accountable for their lies.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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