Daniel W. Drezner

Political science enters the White House

Scott Shane had a New York Times front-pager on Sunday about the chief architect of the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” that was released earlier this week. Turns out it’s a political scientist that I know: There could be no doubt about the theme of President Bush’s Iraq war strategy speech on Wednesday at ...

Scott Shane had a New York Times front-pager on Sunday about the chief architect of the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” that was released earlier this week. Turns out it’s a political scientist that I know:

There could be no doubt about the theme of President Bush’s Iraq war strategy speech on Wednesday at the Naval Academy. He used the word victory 15 times in the address; “Plan for Victory” signs crowded the podium he spoke on; and the word heavily peppered the accompanying 35-page National Security Council document titled, “Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” Although White House officials said many federal departments had contributed to the document, its relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war. Despite the president’s oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed. That finding, which is questioned by other political scientists, was clearly behind the victory theme in the speech and the plan, in which the word appears six times in the table of contents alone, including sections titled “Victory in Iraq is a Vital U.S. Interest” and “Our Strategy for Victory is Clear.” “This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency,” said Christopher F. Gelpi, Dr. Feaver’s colleague at Duke and co-author of the research on American tolerance for casualties. “The Pentagon doesn’t need the president to give a speech and post a document on the White House Web site to know how to fight the insurgents. The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion.”…. Based on their study of poll results from the first two years of the war, Dr. Gelpi, Dr. Feaver and Jason Reifler, then a Duke graduate student, took issue with what they described as the conventional wisdom since the Vietnam War – that Americans will support military operations only if American casualties are few. They found that public tolerance for the human cost of combat depended on two factors: a belief that the war was a worthy cause, and even more important, a belief that the war was likely to be successful. In their paper, “Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” which is to be published soon in the journal International Security, Dr. Feaver and his colleagues wrote: “Mounting casualties did not produce a reflexive collapse in public support. The Iraq case suggests that under the right conditions, the public will continue to support military operations even when they come with a relatively high human cost.”…. Asked about who wrote the document, a White House official said Dr. Feaver had helped conceive and draft the plan, though the official said a larger role belonged to another N.S.C. staff member, Meghan L. O’Sullivan, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and her staff. The official would describe the individual roles only on condition of anonymity because his superiors wanted the strategy portrayed as a unified administration position…. The Feaver-Gelpi hypothesis on public opinion about the war is the subject of serious debate among political scientists. John Mueller, of Ohio State University, said he did not believe that the president’s speech or the victory plan – which he described as “very Feaverish, or Feaveresque” – could produce more than a fleeting improvement in public support for the war, because it was likely to erode further as casualties accumulated. “As the costs go up, support goes down,” he said, citing patterns from the Korean and Vietnam wars.

This is roiling elements of the mainstream media and liberal blogosphere. It’s telling that the Indianapolis Star, running the same NYT story, has as its headline, “Iraq plan appears intended to win the war at home” (the NYT has the more neutral “Bush’s Speech on Iraq War Echoes Voice of an Analyst”). Laura Rozen, for example, scoffs that, “The strategy is mostly designed as PR for the American public.” The indictment would seem to be that the Bush administration is more concerned with the domestic politics of the Iraq war than with actually winning on the ground in Baghdad. As someone who’s been more than a little displeased with the administration’s handling of Iraq, let me state that this charge is absolutely true. The implication that this is somehow misguided is a bunch of horses**t. Yes, this week’s events were aimed primarily at a domestic audience. But that’s because, as Shane points out in the Times piece, the military already knows what its mission is in Iraq — doing everything possible to supply security in the short run and training the Iraqis to provide security in the long run (with logistical and air support from the U.S.). For all the analogies to Vietnam that are floating around, the administration’s actual plan is almost a Vietnam in reverse — to move from 1968 (having U.S. forces doing the bulk of the fighting) to 1961 (having U.S. forces providing a training, advisory, and logistical role). As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, this goal has actually started to seep into the military’s strategic culture. One could even argue that this plan has achieved quite a bit. Now it’s true that there are other plans out there for consideration. It’s also true, as James Fallows points out in the December Atlantic, that the administration didn’t really have an actual plan until the summer of 2004, and the administration deserves all the hell it can catch for that Mongolian cluster-f**k. But the plan it has now has been in place for some time. John Dickerson points out in Slate that this fact is bedeviling certain Democratic critics:

There are reasonable grounds for criticizing the Bush/Casey strategy for dealing with the insurgency as flawed. It may be too little too late, or it may be based on rosy assumptions. But Kerry doesn’t challenge it on any substantive basis. He can’t, because to do so would acknowledge that Bush is offering a solution to the problem of U.S. troops inspiring insurgents.

Which brings us to the purpose of this week’s events. The assumption underlying Feaver and Gelpi’s hypothesis is so simple that it’s never stated in the article — if a sufficiently large majority opposes an ongoing military intervention, any administration will have to withdraw regardless of the strategic wisdom of such a move. This is why, I suspect, the administration reacts so badly whenever it deals with domestic criticism about the war — it recognizes that flagging domestic support will translate into a strategic straitjacket (though do read Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard for a more…. creative explanation). The Feaver/Gelpi solution to this conundrum is to have the President spell out a clear definition for victory. And my suspicion is that they’re right — so long as that definition contains criteria that can be verifiable by non-governmental sources. So, yes, in part what happened last week was an exercise in public relations. But it was also a completely proper use of PR.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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