Theoretical Issues and Empirical Problems


Ever since public opinion became a powerful force in politics (and, probably, even before that), a vexing question for scholars as well as policymakers has been to determine and interpret to what degree and under what conditions the public is prepared to support the use of military force.

On the scholarly side, the centuries-long theoretical debate among Realists and Liberals over the role of public opinion in either propelling or constraining war has been enriched in the last fifty years by empirical research, the most recent results of which show that public opinion is not only a constraint to a reckless recourse to war, as Kant argued two hundred years ago, it may occasionally also be pushing governments into military action, especially to intervene when human rights are being violated, most recently on the basis of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect accepted by the United Nations. Moreover, it can act as a resource in strategic bargaining, making commitments more credible (Fearon, 1994) and, if the case should arise, make war-fighting more effective (Siverson, 1995; Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson and Smith, 2004; Reiter and Stam, 2002).

Similarly, the conventional belief that the public is casualty averse and fickle in its support for prolonged fighting has also been criticized. Several arguments have been aired and evidence has been marshaled (Eichenberg, 2005; Everts, 2002; Gelpi and Feaver, 2005) to sustain the point that the public is more willing to support the use of force, under some conditions, than is usually assumed and expected.

But still, politicians and the media look at the issue of public opinion with a mixture of apprehension and hope and, apparently, draw conclusions that differ considerably from those of the scholars. True, both democratic leaders and their authoritarian opponents recognize that public support is a crucial precondition in democracy for success in war. As part of the lessons drawn from the Vietnam war, the Weinberger-Powell doctrine quasi-officially prescribed the US government to use force only when it has 'some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in the Congress' (Weinberger, 1986: 686; Powell, 1992/93). However, politicians and policymakers in Western democracies also tend to share authoritarian leaders' skepticism about the democratic publics' willingness to fight, especially when casualties mount. Ho Chi Minh reportedly said that 'In the end, the Americans will have killed ten of us for every American soldier who died, but it is they who will tire first',1 and Saddam Hussein resolutely stated to Ambassador Glaspie, a few days before attacking Kuwait, in August 1990, 'Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle.'2 Statements like these resonate too well in the ears of Western policymakers and, apparently, those of the military too. In one of the few empirical studies addressing this issue from the elite viewpoint, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies survey, a substantial majority (77 percent) of both military and civilian leaders agreed that 'The American public will rarely tolerate large numbers of US casualties in military operations' (Holsti, 2001: 39). And the media are more than ready to beat this drum in crises, as was shown in Afghanistan (DeYoung and Milbank, 2001) and Iraq.3

This skeptical view of the public's role when force is called for by governments has deeply affected military doctrine and weapons developments as well. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), relying on smart weapons technologies, computerized battlefields and war 'at a distance,' stems from the assumption that technology has to be put at work in the battlefield in order to minimize casualties because of the shaky public support for the use of force (see Luttwak, 1994; Record, 2000; Nincic, 2004 among others). According to critics, what has been now elevated to a 'Force-Protection Fetishism' (Record, 2000), is damaging the very war fighting capabilities of democracies.

In this chapter, we review what the literature says about the nature and conditions shaping support for the use of force. We take a closer and more careful look at the 'malleability' of public opinion, discussing the main empirical results reached by the study of public support for the use of force.4

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