Wednesday, November 10, 2004

It was one of the biggest mysteries of the presidential campaign and indeed modern American politics. Whether they favored Democratic nominee John Kerry or not, why didn’t most voters turn sharply against the Iraq war launched by President Bush?

All the makings of an antiwar tidal wave seemed to be in place, ranging from continuing U.S. casualties, a stubborn enemy, high and rising economic costs, poor intelligence and planning, a credibility gap over claims about weapons of mass destruction and an al Qaeda connection, and round-the-clock media coverage of American losses and failures. Even many one-time supporters of the war have either voiced grave doubts or jumped ship.

In short, the Iraq war clearly has been America’s most difficult military venture since Vietnam, and parallels with that conflict appear easy to draw. Yet not only did major mistakes, misjudgments and false promises fail to ignite a political revolt. According to the exit polls, voters still approve the original decision to invade Iraq by 51 to 47 percent — even though by 52-43 percent, the electorate believes the war is going “badly,” not “well.”

Reasons offered for Americans’ patience offered range from the president’s supposed likeability to the public’s post-September 11 gullibility on anything terrorist-related to the Democrats’ lack of clearcut alternatives. Yet the persistence of public patience amid nonstop talk shows, angry partisanship, and endless spin points to a more fundamental explanation: a bedrock public belief that, unlike Vietnam or other regions where Americans’ appetite for casualties proved sharply limited, Iraq and the surrounding Persian Gulf region matter.

Although the United States historically has not been shy about using military force, doubts have lingered about the public’s willingness to sacrifice treasure and blood, especially if a quick victory seems unlikely. During the post-Cold War period in particular, a Vietnam Syndrome has seemed apparent — in Somalia, where America abruptly withdrew after the Blackhawks went down; in Bosnia, where most U.S. forces were kept safely airborne; and in Rwanda, where they were kept away completely.

But as World War II and the first Gulf war make clear, when American leaders use force to protect truly important or vital interests, as opposed to crusading or do-gooding in backwaters, Americans will pay the ultimate price. The public’s consistency on Iraq shows most Americans place the country in these categories.

Moreover, given what the nation has learned about Iraq and the Gulf since the region first burst onto the front pages during the oil crises of the 1970s, it’s easy to see both why the public has shrugged off the president’s individual blunders and why its support for the broader Iraq policy makes sense.

Few Americans are experts on the Gulf, but its salient features have been easy enough to grasp. The region has most of the world’s oil supplies and thus wields great power over the U.S. and world economies. Worse, it is filled with people and movements that hate non-Muslims, modern Western life, the United States, American foreign policy, or some combination of these enough to attack them devastatingly now that they have the capability to do so.

Thus, as revealed by the first Gulf war, because Iraq — and by extension the Gulf — matter, most Americans apparently recognize permitting an ambitious local dictator to rampage throughout the region is unacceptable. Because Iraq matters, the public also seems convinced responding to such threats militarily cannot depend on international approval, however desirable and useful it may be. Because Iraq matters, Americans evidently believe not only that keeping it free of weapons of mass destruction is essential, but that acting too quickly, before they are developed, is far better than acting too slowly, and risking their appearance.

Because Iraq matters, most Americans clearly worry that, even if their assorted regional enemies have not actively linked up yet, they surely will. The public seems much less impressed with academic arguments that religious fundamentalists like al Qaeda and secular nationalists like Saddam Hussein will always be divided by doctrine, than with the brute logic of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Perhaps most important, because Iraq matters, the public apparently understands that the successes to date — eliminating the possibility of these weapons and these team-ups — have been worth the subsequent human and material costs and the mistakes made along the way.

And because Iraq matters, they realize a president solidly behind this mission is less likely to permit those threats from ever emerging than a president who is ambivalent at best.

Nonetheless, the public’s crude but reasonable picture of the Gulf does not translate into a carte blanche for Mr. Bush. The public will bear major costs for a long time to succeed in Iraq, but it will not bear rising costs indefinitely. And there is no sign Americans care about democratizing a region with no serious tradition of democracy.

Thus, Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy will retain public backing as long as it focuses on keeping the Gulf free of weapons of mass destruction and of governments that aid or harbor terrorists. Over the last 18 months, Americans have made it clear above all they want a president who understands in his bones that Iraq matters — and why.

Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation and author of “The Race to the Bottom.”

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