Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Blaming The Public

In relation to Iraq, I recall the position of "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf as set forth in his 1993 autobiography:
From the brief time that we did spend occupying Iraqi territory after the war, I am certain that had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit - we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of the occupation. This is a burden I am sure the beleaguered American taxpayer would not have been happy to take on.
George H.W. Bush similarly opinined in 1998,
We should not march into Baghdad. To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero. Assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerilla war, it could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability.
On Monday, George W. Bush expressed,
Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy. Immediate withdrawal would say to the Zarqawis of the world and the terrorists of the world and the bomber who take innocent life around the world: 'the United States is weak.
Yet, despite the Bush Administration's protestations, this war was sold to the American people as something that was going to be short and easy. I'm not sure quite how that sale was made - but I think it would have been better made with a candid discussion of the true costs and burdens of invading, occupying, and the attempted reinvention of Iraq. Granted, the sales pitch would have been less convincing, and it is possible that in the end the American people wouldn't have bought into a war that they knew would be this difficult, this protracted, and this expensive. (I'm sure that at least Donald "Democracy is messy" Rumsfeld would have accepted the will of the people, right?)

We now have columnists like David Ignatius suggesting that, in regard to the war, the President is tone deaf. Or Harold Meyerson all-but calling the war plan a failure. But we don't seem to have any reflection upon the fact that had the Bush Administration respected the American people enough to tell the truth from the beginning (say what you will about whether they believed WMD's were present; the truth I'm talking about is that of the difficulty and cost of the post-war) we would either have made the informed commitment to stick with the project despite those risks and costs, or we would have chosen not to invade. Either way, we would be better off.[FN1]

FN1. The case is sometimes made that it isn't a question of whether "we" are better off, but is a question of "bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people". We have yet to do that, and may never accomplish such a goal. The moral weight of that argument, and the counter-argument that the aftermath of invasion could be no better or worse than life under Hussein, is something that should have been thoroughly discussed and considered in the pre-war period, as a factor in the nation's informed choice.


  1. Aaron: two kinds of comments.

    First, a war is not a deal you make with the public. It is a matter of policy at the highest levels, else there could be no such thing as an "unpopular war" - American Idol-style voting would have turned it off the first week our casualties climbed above 1,000.

    Second, a war is not a trick you play on the public. Informed consent- was that the language you used? That's the language women's rights advocates use when they talk about unwanted sex; the language tort lawyers use when they discuss assumption of the risk vs. failure to warn.

    You're playing with fire, Aaron, describing the way the Administration "sold" the War to the American public as if it were a fast one, a roofie, a dangerously defective product. You brush perilously close to truth when you imply (perhaps unintentionally) that Bush's administration, and the Congress which enabled and supported it, were like

    - a date rapist. Say, a thuggish frat boy or other loser looking for an unsuspecting victim, rather unconcerned for her actual feelings on the matter

    - the sleazy defendant of a razor-blade studded chew toy for infants. See Aykroyd's hilarious portrayal on vintage SNL episodes. That broken glass? That's...uh... for fiber.

    A bill of goods, indeed.

  2. If we move to a traditional marketing arena, imagine two people who purchased the same product at the same price. One discovers after-the-fact that it only has half the features described by the salesman. The other finds that it is exactly as described. Should we be surprised that the first person is fuming about being ripped off, and denounces the business that "cheated" him, even as the second is perfectly content with the exact same deal (but having entered it on honest terms)?

    I don't really like to use marketing concepts in association with a war. But after Andrew Card's assertion, "You don't roll out a new product in August," there is little doubt that our nation's leaders viewed the Iraq war in marketing terms. And they should thus not be surprised that an oversold, underinformed public has buyer's remorse.

    The term I initially used (and probably should have stuck with) was "informed commitment". I later referenced "informed choice" in the footnote, but meant that to be within the context of the choice to support or oppose the war, not to suggest that we should enter war by plebiscite or exit simply because of falling popular support. I would venture, though, that with an informed national consensus to support a war, you would be less likely to see the sort of plunging approval ratings now associated with the Iraq venture. (But as I previously suggested, the net result might have been that the war did not occur, and I think the Bush Administration viewed such a possibility as unacceptable.)

    (Speaking of Congress....)

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