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How Long Will the Public Support the War on ISIS?

Earlier this week I said [1] that public support for the ISIS war would likely decrease over time. Trevor Thrall made [2] an extended version of the same argument last week:

Public opinion has turned against every American military engagement that has lasted more than a year with the exception of World War II. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: a good number of the majority who supports intervention at the outset has not factored into their thinking all the eventual costs and consequences of the campaign [bold mine-DL]. Eventually, the accumulation of costs—be they casualties, increased terrorism or the economic toll of war—will start to overwhelm the initial support, especially for those without particularly strong reasons to support the war in the first place.

It is impossible to imagine this campaign avoiding a similar fate if it indeed stretches out to three years or beyond.

One of the reasons that many early supporters of military interventions don’t factor costs and consequences into their thinking is that the proponents of the intervention make a point of minimizing and obscuring these from view. Like all advocates pushing a particular policy, interventionists emphasize and exaggerate the dangers of not adopting their recommendations and oversell the benefits of “action.” They typically have a dismissive, cavalier attitude towards unforeseen and adverse consequences of military action and they assume [3] that “there is no real harm in trying.” That arrogance and overconfidence make “action” seem appealing early on, but set the U.S. up for disappointment, frustration, and bitter recriminations later.

In most cases, the near-instant bipartisan consensus that congeals around an interventionist policy and the attendant media demands to “do something” tend to drown out countervailing arguments during the first few months of the campaign. This boosts public support for military action in the short term, but like any bait-and-switch trick it also causes people to sour on the intervention more quickly than they might have done otherwise. More Americans gradually become aware that the threat to the U.S. was overstated (or simply made up) all along, and they start to realize that the war they were originally told about at the beginning is not the one that the U.S. is actually fighting. Because presidents often set unrealistic goals for these interventions, there is usually even greater disillusionment because the war comes to be seen as “not working.” That is a trap that presidents set for themselves. They are the ones promising results that aren’t possible, and those results certainly aren’t possible at the very low cost that the public is willing to accept.

In addition to length of time, the costs of a prolonged intervention naturally drive down support as they increase. Support for military action often starts vanishing as soon as the war involves the loss of American lives or the extended commitment of U.S. resources. Another factor that makes public support for military intervention relatively fleeting is that almost all of the wars that the U.S. has fought in the last fifty years have been unnecessary ones. If a war were genuinely necessary to keep the U.S. secure from a foreign threat, a majority would likely keep backing it for a very long time, but since almost none of our modern wars falls into this category it is unreasonable to expect that there would be sustained public support for a war that didn’t have to be fought. That is especially true for illegal wars waged without Congressional authorization. Whatever the polls may say at the start of a war, the president can’t claim to have obtained the consent of the public unless their representatives have voted specifically to authorize it. The longer that a president waits to seek that authorization, the more that he and his party will come to “own” the war. As a result, it will be easier for the rest of the country to turn against it and make it very unpopular. Clinton and Obama were able to get away with their illegal wars in Kosovo and Libya despite limited public support, but those wars were over in a matter of months. Waging a multi-year war without explicit Congressional authorization and relying on obviously bogus legal arguments to justify doing so will likely make this war unpopular much sooner rather than later.

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20 Comments To "How Long Will the Public Support the War on ISIS?"

#1 Comment By Charlieford On September 25, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

I’m not sure. As long as we’re not deploying infantry, there won’t be running tallies of US deaths to energize the public.

With no front lines and no big battles, there won’t be a lot of news for opinions to coalesce around.

There won’t be the kinds of images that become iconic.

Code Pink will be the public face of the anti-war movement, which will alienate the emotionally well-balanced.

The Republicans will carp, but it will be hard for them to stake out a coherent position–they’ve been saying “no boots on the ground” so long, they won’t be able to make a case for escalation, and if they try, they won’t have the people behind them. They also can’t really call for a premature end to the war,or any end, really, as that would contradict the essence of their foreign policy: More America and more war, everywhere, all the time.

So without a simplistic case to be made easily at hand for the Republicans, and without much to grab the public’s attention, this will I suspect bump along much like our wars in Waziristan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The folks have other things to occupy their minds.

#2 Comment By collin On September 25, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

Charlieford is right as long as the engagement is limited, the media will call “Squirrel!” on somewhere else (Jebbie For President) and the American public will forget the action. Depending upon how the bombing at least weakens ISIS, withdraw and exit are a lot easier if the meida is not paying attention.

#3 Comment By Andrew On September 25, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

In most cases, the near-instant bipartisan consensus that congeals around an interventionist policy and the attendant media demands to “do something” tend to drown out countervailing arguments during the first few months of the campaign. This boosts public support for military action in the short term, but like any bait-and-switch trick it also causes people to sour on the intervention more quickly than they might have done otherwise.

I am treading a really hot waters here, but let me try? American public in general has no concept of war, a real one. It never had, despite the fact that so many works of art (film, books etc.) have been dedicated to all those suppressed memories, abuses etc. I am beginning to hate myself for repeating ad nauseam, but it was Continental Warfare (war in general) which both formed nations (Treaty (Peace) Of Westphalia, anyone?) and, unless force majeure is in play, provided for the development of attitudes and inhibitors towards war. Forget me, many first rate American thinkers wrote about it. But if we open, say, one out of many great works of military art, such as “War, Studies From Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology”, already in 1915 William McDougall wrote about Instinct Of Pugnacity in the namesake essay, while Bronislaw Malinowski, in his 1941 “An Anthropological Analysis Of War” wrote:”Another interesting point in the study of aggression is that, like charity, it begins at home.”(c) The main issue here are inhibitors to pugnacity and the dynamics of the internal politics. But how can one develop those? One has to be subjected to the war–yes, this unpleasant nuisance of human history which many in American academia and media desperately try to ignore or discount. It is akin to starting the car, which has no engine.

While generalizing, I still have to mention Michael Lind:”The possibility of military defeat and invasion are usually left out of discussion….in the United states and Britain. The United States, if one discounts Pearl Harbor has not suffered a serious invasion from 1812; Britain, though it has been bombed from the air in the (20th century), has been free from foreign invasion even longer….Elsewhere in the world, political elites cannot as easily separate foreign policy and economics.”(c) American parameters of “defeat” differ drastically from those of the rest of the world. The whole notion of having an aggressive Canada, which is ready to attack US cities and wreak a havoc on them, let alone a military superpower Mexico, usually creates a sense of the confusion among leading strategists of the world. I could use Richard Pipes’ conclusion but…I will not. Conclusions? Let everyone make their own.

#4 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 25, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

Wars rarely work out as planned and advertised. They tend to be longer, bloodier and more costly than originally estimated. Various Administrations of both parties have had to do a “sales job” on the public, selling the necessity of a war. Vietnam did not work out as advertised. Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan. Why should anyone believe this Administration on this latest “military intervention.”

#5 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On September 25, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

Agree with Charlieford. That is the reason for not including ground troops. So long as war just means dropping bombs on people and not having to deal with the consequences, most people are all for it.

#6 Comment By arrScott On September 25, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

You do realize we’ve already run this experiment? Depending on how you count the end-state of the 1991-2003 campaigns, the public will accept active use of air power in Iraq for either 12 years or indefinitely.

So, the answer is, “Forever, or until we invade and occupy the country, whichever comes first.”

#7 Comment By Ron Beasley On September 25, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

I think cost will be a big factor even without boots on the ground. Those smart bombs and cruise missiles are not cheap. I understand the bombing campaign has already cost over a billion dollars.

#8 Comment By Andrew On September 25, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

@Ron Beasley

I think cost will be a big factor

It is the ONLY factor.

#9 Comment By BD On September 25, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

It really depends on how the president(s) run it. I agree with the above commenters that if Obama treats this the same way we treated Iraq from 1990-2003, with just periodic bombings from safe, high altitudes, the public won’t much care. The people being bombed are alien to us, and will be seen as collateral damage–and very few American pilots will come home in body bags. The president(s) can just keep saying this is all doing some good.

It’s only if the president(s) decide to actually try to bring the war to a conclusion by sending ground forces in that it could get ugly for us.

#10 Comment By johnny On September 25, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

It is similar to the frog being boiled in water; it simply does not notice itself being cooked! The public gets accustomed to or desensitized to the myriad of global police actions, crisis du jour, or quasi-wars and loses its focus until the next crisis. If I can get a dollar for the diluted term, “imminent threat” will be enunciated.

#11 Comment By arrScott On September 25, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

It is similar to the frog being boiled in water; it simply does not notice itself being cooked!

Not true! If you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly heat it to a boil, the frog will hop out to safety as soon as it becomes uncomfortable, long before the water boils or even becomes dangerous. On the other hand, if you throw a frog into a pot of already boiling water, it will suffer immediate and catastrophic burn trauma, go into shock, and die. Exactly the opposite of the famous cliche. This has been the subject of actual experimental observation by scientists:


#12 Comment By Charlieford On September 25, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

I trust no actual frogs were harmed in the process?

#13 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On September 25, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

It doesn’t help that we’re already seeing mission creep during the rollout, with a new enemy in the area, the Khorasan network, that’s super scary!

#14 Comment By Darth Thulhu On September 25, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

Charlieford wrote:

I trust no actual frogs were harmed in the process?

That would be naïve trust. Scientists chew through animals nobody likes to think about with roughly the alacrity and disinterest that bombing campaigns chew through Arab civilians nobody likes to think about.

What was our final toll of slaughtered Iraqis? 200k+ at minimum? With zero official regrets? So it is in the many other abattoirs of our “civilization”.

#15 Comment By Robert On September 25, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

The public would support Obama’s war against ISIS if and only if he won it. But since there will be no boots on the ground, it is a war that cannot be won.

Unless there is a spate of massive “terrorist” attacks in the West blamed on them, Obama’s self defeating war against ISIS will be seen by the public as just another example of his weak and vacillating leadership, particularly in foreign policy.

The Republicans will certainly present it that way and their position will be widelyaccepted.

#16 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 25, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

I consider it entirely likely that IS manages a smallish terrorist attack on some US interest somewhere, perhaps even in the US. At which point the bulk of opposition to the war will be that it is not being waged aggressively enough.

#17 Comment By johnny On September 26, 2014 @ 10:31 am

Freeloading fact of the day (it’s not just Europeans and ME Countries): China is the no. 1 oil investor in Iraq.


#18 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 26, 2014 @ 11:00 am

Supposedly the inflammatory anti-Muslim video made in California had nothing to do with the blowback of anger in the Mideast that contributed to the Benghazi fiasco.

Yet two videos similarly designed to inflame American passions worked in exactly the same fashion, to unleash calls for revenge and unleash violence.

Who wanted the war is the question? Not the public, which needs to be manipulated into war support. From all accounts, those in government who wanted war but lacked public support found it more useful to prevent the reporters being released through the efforts of their own families, so that useful provocations could ensue.

As Justin Raimondo so aptly puts it, there is genuinely a War Party in charge of our nation now – and given the secret governance and lack of accountability, probably for a long time to come.

#19 Comment By tbraton On September 26, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

“I trust no actual frogs were harmed in the process?”

The experiment was conducted strictly by British and American scientists—no French scientists were involved at all.

#20 Comment By bangle On September 28, 2014 @ 11:02 am

An excellent opinion piece and for the most part I agree with you, but I also think there is a direct relationship between the amount of involvement in a war like action and the amount of support given or not given to the action. Certainly in a situation like ISIS where we have Americans being killed in a most brutal manner on international television and posted on the Internet there is a desire to retaliate on the groups killing our citizens. If we were to blindly rush in with a massive boots on the ground offensive with large U.S. casualties then that sort of endeavor rapidly loses public support however if we conduct strategic strikes using smart weapons and tactics to eliminate the group its leaders and its command and control with minimal or no loss of U.S. life then that sort of action can go on indefinitely and not lose public support.