Time and War: Public Opinion on Kosovo, Terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq in a Transatlantic Perspective


Measuring support for or opposition to the international use of force is not an easy matter. As earlier research (e.g., Mueller, 1973; Larson, 1996a; Everts and Isernia 2001; Feaver and Gelpi, 2004) has shown, people are particularly sensitive to the circumstances under and purposes for which the use of force is either envisaged or actually taking place. Hypothetical cases as well as questions about the use of force before the decision to use this instrument has actually been taken may be especially misleading us with respect to what can be expected in a concrete and specific historical case. Timing is also a relevant element in view of the 'rally around the flag' effect, or the tendency of people to support the use of military force, despite hesitations, once their government has taken a decision to do so. This is a well-known phenomenon that deserves to be mentioned in this connection (Mueller, 1973).

In the preceding chapters we have looked at the ideological and dispositional factors shaping public opinion on support for war. Although we may assume that these beliefs are more or less equally strong and do not vary much over time, we note that public opinion on a specific conflict is not a constant. Sometimes it changes considerably and rapidly as time goes by. It is not surprising that support for a particular war declines when success is not in sight or when casualties mount. We often assume that support diminishes with the duration of a conflict, especially when the costs rise and success is not forthcoming.

Although we shall briefly touch upon other aspects too, the impact of the evolution of time is the focus of the present chapter. We shall look at four particular recent historical cases: the conflict over Kosovo (in 1999) which was over in a few months, the issue of international terrorism, also referred to as 'the war on terrorism', which may last an undefined period and the wars over Afghanistan (since 2002) and Iraq (since 2003). The military phase of the latter two lasted long enough and success was so evidently elusive for support to decline in a steady pace from early on. Thus, the four conflicts while sharing some characteristics also show the differential impact of time. In this connection, one is struck by the degree to which the literature on determinants of support for the use of force (and the polls which provide the data for such studies) tends to be biased in two ways: 1) it focuses on the initiation of conflict, the decision to go to war rather than later phases and 2) it is static and does not account for the fact that impact of causal factors may vary over time and/or be different in different phases of conflict.

In previous chapters, we demonstrated the differences as well as the similarities between the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Public opinion was seen to be shaped by the same ideological and dispositional factors and in a similar fashion in the EU and the US, but the weight of these factors differs considerably, leading to a generally much stronger inclination of Americans to seek a military solution to a conflict compared to Europeans. However, attitudes vary just as much within countries as they do across the Atlantic. This, as we shall see, is also characteristic for the four conflicts examined more closely in this chapter. In this connection, it may be useful to start with a rough distinction between four phases of a conflict: (1) the pre-war stage, (2) the first month (with rally effects), (3) the main phases of a war itself and (4) the post-war situation. It seems obvious, for instance, that short conflicts are likely to be more popular than long drawn out ones or in the initial phases, before the ends for which it is fought become elusive and/or fatigue sets in.

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