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Will Predicting Victory in Iraq Rally the Public Behind Bush?

by Ruy Teixeira

On November 30, Bush gave a speech at the Naval Academy in which, according to the Washington Post:

He used the word victory 15 times.....; "Plan for Victory" signs crowded the podium he spoke on; and the word heavily peppered the accompanying 35-page National Security Council document titled, "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

Apparently, itís no accident that Bushís public relations strategy is so victory-centric. The Post article goes on to say:

[The documentís] relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.

Despite the president's oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.

How plausible is all this? Unlikely, not to say delusional, if not ďFeaver-ishĒ, as public opinion expert John Mueller waggishly observed in the same Post article. Consider these data from the latest Qunnipiac University poll:

1. By 54-41, voters say the war with Iraq was the wrong thing for the US to do, not the right thing.

2. Forty percent of the public supports immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Another 4 percent support withdrawal within six months and another 10 percent within a year. So 54 percent support withdrawing troops within a year, compared to 39 percent who support staying longer or setting no timetable. Note that sentiment for immediate withdrawal includes 55 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of independents.

3. By 49-46, voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making the case for the Iraq war.

4. By 51-47, voters now believe Bush does not have strong leadership qualities and, by 50-45, they now believe that Bush is not honest and trustworthy.

The likelihood that views this negative will be turned around by stridently insisting the US will somehow achieve victory in Iraq seems slight indeed. As Jonathan Rauch remarked in a Sunday article in the Washington Post:

[T]he evolving structure of public opinion about Iraq is making the current war effort there unsustainable....What emerges [from the public opinion data] is not fleeting disenchantment, but a coherent and hard-nosed critique of Bush's strategy. The administration's fundamental problem is not that the public is discouraged by U.S. casualties, or that news from Iraq has been bad, or that the president needs to give better speeches. The problem is that many Americans see no stakes in Iraq sufficient to justify the military effort and diplomatic cost.

In other words, the public has concluded that the war is a bad idea and was a mistake to begin with (as the Qunnipiac University poll cited above and many other polls have found). And, politically, that is very, very consequential. But donít take my word for it. Here are the words of the good Dr. Feaver and a colleague in their paper, "Iraq the Vote: Retrospective and Prospective Foreign Policy Judgments, Candidate Choice, and Casualty Tolerance."

We show that prospective judgments of the likelihood of success in Iraq and retrospective judgments of whether the war in Iraq was right are significant determinants of both vote choice and casualty tolerance. The prospective judgment of success is key in predicting casualty tolerance, while retrospective judgment of whether the war was right takes precedence in determining vote choice.(emphasis added).

In plain English, that means that, leaving aside the question of supporting the ongoing war effort, if people conclude the war was wrong and a bad idea to begin with, they want to vote against the party behind the war. What are people concluding right now? That the war was wrong and a bad idea. Therefore, according to their own public opinion guru, the idea that the Bush administration and the GOP can pull their political chestnuts out of the fire by insisting on the imminence of victory in Iraq is just plain wrong. The political corner has already been turnedĖand itís been turned against Bush and his party. No amount of victory-happy rhetoric, now or in the future, is likely to reverse that dynamic.