George W. Bush and Iraq

Dissertation why has George W. Bush been able to conduct the Iraq War in the face of declining public support? (2003-2009)

On March 19, 2003, the United States declared war on Iraq. Within days, of the beginning of the war, Gallup polls announced a rise in support for the war which peaked at Seventy-two percent.[1] This Mass public approval rating offered the George W. Bush administration the necessary justification for the war.

The Occupation of Iraq[2] was framed by the Bush administration to be a necessary conflict in order to protect security at home, and through the use of speeches and propaganda methods, the public support for the war was built upon the fear of another attack on American freedoms, similar to that of the 9/11 plane hijackings[3].

This high level of public support allowed the Bush administration to conduct a war, which they could advertise as popularly supported, despite the war having the potential to become disastrous and detrimental to American society, their economy and public attitudes towards the government. The prospect of a long war with many casualties, which could promote further terrorism and increase the chances of future terrorist attacks, rather than build a more stable security situation in America was very real. Yet support for the war remained high, contrary to most theories of public opinion towards conducting wars.

Before the invasion, the United States (U.S) government claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and this posed a serious threat to their security[4].In 2002, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1441 calling for Iraq to cooperate with UN weapon inspectors and verify that Iraq did not possess WMDs. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) found no evidence of WMDs, but could not verify the accuracy of Iraq's weapon declarations[5].

After the United Nations (UN) denied authorisation for action; American public support remained high for America to lead a coalition force into Iraq amongst Americans. This disregard, for the UN Security Council's opinion, comes contrary to the public opinion, towards the weapons inspectors, expressed in the polls, (see figure 1._). Showing a high level of approval for the job done by UN weapons inspectors, who entered Iraq, with just 17% saying they did a bad job. Despite the difficult international issues facing the United Nations, as recently as January, Americans were somewhat positive about the U.N.'s problem-solving abilities[6].

So what caused this surge of public opinion in support of the war? Some scholars have pointed to patriotism or, more commonly known as, the rally-around-the-flag effect. Although many agree that this boosts support from the American people when going to, what is seen as a just, war; it cannot by itself explain the high rate of approval received for the Iraq invasion[7].

Other theories of foreign policy power revolve around the academic argument established by Gabriel Almond and Walter Lippmann, known as the Almond-Lippmann consensus. This is based on three assumptions[8]. First, public opinion is volatile, responding with erratic shifts to recent developments. Lippman highlighted this, saying, “...too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent”[9]. The next point of the consensus attacks the incoherency of public attitudes, lacking consistent structure to such an extent that views of Americans could be seen as “nonattitudes”[10]. The final point made in the Almond-Lippmann is about the irrelevance of public opinion to the policy making process as most Americans can neither “understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend.”[11]

This gloomy assessment of American public opinion, and its influence on the foreign policy decision making process, has been challenged many times since, and its generally agreed that although the Almond-Lippmann consensus can be applied to some foreign policy situations, with some truth and evidence, it is not necessarily applicable in contemporary assessments of public opinions influence in foreign affairs.[12]

Others describe public opinion as an obstruction to thoughtful and coherent diplomacy, which hinders efforts to encourage national interests. Hans Morgenthau belongs to this, the ‘realist', school of thinking, who also believes that, unlike domestic policy, the public are too remote from foreign policy to have the experience and necessary information to make an informed judgement on such distant issues. Morgenthau goes on to highlight that the public would allow the emotional to govern the rational[13], which would ultimately undermine the stability of the democracies and the international system.[14]

The liberal-democratic traditions, advanced by the likes of Kant and Bentham, which express those foreign policies of democracies, are more peaceful due to the restraint of accountability within the democratic system. Meaning policy-makers cannot neglect the opinion of the masses as this will risk their political livelihood.

Other recent research developments have looked past Almond's, “The American People and Foreign Policy” (1950), and Lippmann's, “Essay's in the Public Philosophy” (1955), now making it customary to distinguish between various cohorts of the public, separating the American population into three sections when it comes to foreign policy. Firstly being the mass public, consisting of the majority of Americans, uninterested and ill-informed of the necessary information and expertise to make a rational judgement on foreign policy. Next is the attentive public, taken from 10 percent of the population, who have substantial knowledge in foreign affairs and who are “...inclined to participate but lack access to the institution.”[15] And thirdly, the foreign policy elite, who have the knowledge and access to influence foreign policy decision making, taken from the absolute minority.[16]

When examining other models of political leadership it is obvious to see the dilemma which foreign policy possesses. On the one hand, we have the need to act fast and decisively, and on the other, within a democracy the approval of the majority should be followed in order to consider a policy ‘democratic'. This leads us into the conflict of two models, the Delegate model and the Trustee model.

The Delegate model says that democratically elected officials should reflect the preference of the general public acting as they think “...their constituents want”[17]. Not allowing their personal preferences effects the policy decisions.

In conflict to this model, is the Trustee model which allows greater manoeuvrability for elected officials based on extra freedom of thought to follow their own more enlightened view of policy dilemmas. Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century British political theorist, did not consider the mass public qualified to make informed judgements and declared, “...your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”[18]. A damning view of an electorate in an era before media coverage easy access to information allowing the public to be informed in policy fields of government.[19]

We can directly relate this debate of democratic political leadership to the two main international relations theories, liberalism and realism. On one hand we have liberalism, a positive view on the public role in foreign policy

[1] [Accessed 10th February 2010]

[2] Allawi, Ali (April 2007). The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (1 ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p.544

[3] See Gershkoff and Kushner.

[4] "US Names Coalition of the Willing". BBC News. March 18, 2003

· Center for American Progress (January 29, 2004) "In Their Own Words: Iraq's 'Imminent' Threat"

Senator Bill Nelson (January 28, 2004) "New Information on Iraq's Possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction", Congressional Record

[5] Blix, H. (March 7, 2003) "Transcript of Blix's U.N. presentation"


[7] Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson 2002. See also Mueller 1970; 1973

[8] Holsti 1992

[9] Lippmann 1955, 20

[10] Converse 1964

[11] Kris and Leites 1947, 393

[12] Hook 2008, 207

[13] Morganthau 1978,558

[14] Holsti 1992, 440

[15] Rousseau 1961, 33

[16] Hook 2008, 203

[17] Pitkin 1967, 147

[18] (quoted in Hofman and Levack 1949, 115

[19] Hook 2008, 204

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