Lurking beneath the recent debate about a military strike on Iran is a question that has received relatively little attention so far: the question of public support. Hawks, thus far, have relied on the notion that a military victory will bring approval, while critics have argued that the Iraq experience has produced an American public unwilling to support further adventurism in the Middle East. Both sides are wrong.
The Hawks are wrong because what Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam long before) have illustrated is the tenuous connection between military outcomes and political success. The critics of intervention are wrong because the most recent polling reveals an American public willing, albeit by a slim majority, to approve military action in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The most interesting thing about public opinion toward the Iran question, however, is what has been absent from the debate thus far: presidential fearmongering and threat inflation. As the table below reveals, support for military action against Iran today is almost exactly the same as support for the invasion of Iraq right before the war began.
The $64 takeaway from this surprising, even shocking, comparison is just how irrelevant presidential propaganda must have been in forming opinions about the invasion of Iraq. A decade removed from 9/11, public support for a potential military strike on Iran is almost exactly the same it was for the attack on Iraq. And this is despite the Bush administration’s repeated exaggerations about Iraqi WMD, despite the Bush administration making Iraq the focus of a year-long public-relations effort, despite the fact that Americans already loathed Saddam Hussein, despite overwhelming support for the war on terror and despite the fact that fully half of the public believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved with 9/11.
By contrast, though he has certainly put pressure on Iran through multilateral diplomacy and economic sanctions, Obama has spent no time building public support for military action against Iran and relatively little time talking about Iran at all. According to the Pew News Index, Iran didn’t even crack the top twenty news stories of 2011 . And in fact, it is far from clear that Obama himself has any stomach whatsoever for military action against Iran under any circumstances. And yet a majority of Americans support military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Of course, the two situations aren’t perfectly analogous. One might argue that it is “easier” to support a potential air strike on Iran than an invasion of Iraq because it is less risky and less likely to cause casualties. I would argue, however, that on almost every count the case against Iraq was far stronger than the case against Iran is at present, mostly for the reasons just outlined but also because all the polling data from after the Congressional vote authorizing Bush to use force are biased toward support; to many people the war by then was inevitable. Bush’s inability to move the needle even at that point compared to the current support for Iran strongly suggests that there was little he could do to move it.
It turn, it is safe to say that if presidential propaganda wasn’t able to do much in the case of Iraq when the president was going all out, it certainly can’t have done much to shape opinion regarding Iran when Obama has (purposely) done so little.
The implications of this conclusion are twofold. First, presidential propaganda is limited in its impact. As I have argued previously in this blog and at length elsewhere, public predispositions regarding dramatic issues of war and peace are healthy enough to form robust bulwarks against presidential PR efforts, even those hopped up on lies, innuendo and spin control. That should be reassuring for us all, at least under most circumstances.
The second implication, however, is more troubling. It appears that at least in two recent cases, presidential propaganda has not been necessary for building modest coalitions of support for using military force. All a president need do, it seems, is to engage a rogue state over nuclear weapons and let nature take its course. A wise president would note, of course, that such majorities tend to be fragile and not particularly well-informed. But given the political capital that a majority, however tenuous, can give a determined commander-in-chief, we would do well to pay more attention to how public opinion in the post-9/11 world is structured.