The impact of time

In this book we found confirmation not only of the impact of more or less stable factors such as ideological and dispositional factors such as Atlanticism on support for using military force, but also that people turned out to be 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 therefore be especially misleading us with respect to what can be expected in concrete and specific historical cases. This was illustrated by many examples and data in Chapters 5 and 6. Time is also a relevant element in view of, for instance, 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 well-known phenomenon was confirmed in the case studies summarized in Chapter 5: the war over Kosovo in 1999, the war on terrorism and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the second phase of the war in Afghanistan and the war over Iraq since 2003. The four conflicts while sharing some characteristics also show the differential impact of time.

If wars do last more than just a few months, and supreme national interests are not perceived to be directly involved, public opinion seldom remains constant and stable, in fact it may change considerably and rapidly as time goes by. It is not surprising that support for a particular war declines in view of the combination of diminishing prospects of success and mounting casualties. While the first two conflicts did not last very long, the military phases of the wars over Afghanistan (since 2002) and Iraq (since 2003) lasted long enough and the lack of success was so evidently elusive as to show the impact of these considerations in the form of a steady decline. Incidentally, in both cases this decline had already started from early on, a few months into the war.

In this connection, it is notable that 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 dispositional causal factors may vary over time and/or be different in different phases of a conflict.

With respect to the question of similarities and differences across the Atlantic one is struck in this connection by the pattern-like similarities rather than the differences detected and emphasized in earlier chapters. These led to different absolute levels of support, which in turn manifested themselves in strong differences and political splits with the Atlantic alliance. However, they did not affect the patterns of relative rise and decline in similar fashions that emerged in all cases discussed in Chapter 5.

In Chapter 6 we looked at the impact of differences in question wording on the basis of a content analysis of some 3000 poll questions on four cases of the international use of force. This method allowed us to turn a liability (differences in question wording) into an asset. In the four cases, among the many societal (context dependent) variables influencing the support of force, five appear to be particularly prominent: 1) the perceived international legitimacy of the actions (or the lack thereof); 2) the perceived interests involved; 3) the perceived effects of the actions; 3) perceptions of success or failure; 4) the sustainability of the idea of a 'clean war', a war without bloodshed, first of all on one's own side, but perhaps also with respect to civilian casualties on the side of the opponent, as was evident in all four cases. A fifth factor, finally, can be called 'fatigue'. The longer a conflict lasts the more influential this factor becomes.

As far as the differences across the Atlantic are concerned, we discovered a differential willingness to support the use of force, which is not due to differences on the acceptability of force in principle (the traditional pacifist argument), to which Europeans, Germans in particular, are often said to be particularly sensitive, but rather to practical differences between Americans and Europeans in the form of a different appreciation of what can actually be achieved by using military force. Should it be to wage combat and defeat the enemy or can it be effective at best to stabilize a situation in order to create the conditions of peace and a more just society? Pessimism rather than pacifism is what seems characteristic of many Europeans.

Looking more specifically at the impact of particular factors (as reflected in the wording of the poll questions involved) on the average level of support, we see some interesting phenomena. In Europe, the greatest impact is exerted by four considerations. Support increases when peacekeeping or humanitarian action is mentioned, but drops considerably when the question refers in some way to civilian casualties or the lack of international legitimacy. The absence of a UN mandate and a reference to civilian casualties depress support for the use of force considerably. On the other hand, the presence of references to a UN force, peacekeeping and humanitarian goals increase support by 24, 20 and 18 percentage points respectively.

In the US, on the contrary, the discourse is rather different. The impact of the factors mentioned is much weaker and somewhat different considerations predominate. The lack of legitimacy and military casualties do depress support, but not as strongly as in Europe, while the danger of escalation and duration (or rather the lack thereof) increases support considerably. Remarkably, a reference to a 'multilateral' action decreases rather than increases support. When Americans are willing to go to war they prefer to do this on their own, but with other countries cheering them on. Like in Europe, UN support is valued positively, but as to actual warfare, Americans seem to prefer unilateral action over coalition warfare.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that the impact of a particular stimulus entailed by a difference in question wording in polls, such as a reference to casualties, is not equally strong for each individual and consequently support tends to move within a range. Some people will never support war, whatever the conditions, others will always support it, whatever the circumstances. Consequently, there is a range within which support moves. The range is not always equally wide and the sensitivity differs from country to country.

In the US, where a much higher average level of support combines with generally more stability in popular views, Americans are only partly sensitive to the framing of the discourse. Consequently, the overall variation is much smaller than in Europe. In the EU countries, support of force in an abstract sense varies between 49 percent (when the question refers to 'military casualties' or 'negative legitimacy' and 70 percent (when the question refers to 'fight terrorism'). In Other countries, the variation stretches between 19 ('civilian casualties' mentioned) and 50 percent ('WMDs found'), much higher again than in the US, and thus displaying a less deeply founded persuasion that war is either acceptable or not and a greater sensitivity to the terms in which the debate about the necessity of war is conducted.

 
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