Shadow Government

Is Obama losing public support for Afghanistan?

By Peter Feaver Will the American public turn on Afghanistan in 2009 the way they turned on Iraq in 2006? I have a new academic book out, co-written by my Duke colleagues Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler, which explains how the mounting costs of any particular war affect public support for continuing that war. Our ...

By Peter Feaver

Will the American public turn on Afghanistan in 2009 the way they turned on Iraq in 2006? I have a new academic book out, co-written by my Duke colleagues Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler, which explains how the mounting costs of any particular war affect public support for continuing that war. Our bottom line: support for war is a function of two attitudes: the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place, and the prospective attitude of whether the war will be won. Both affect public willingness to continue the war, but the prospective attitude has a bigger impact. In other words, the long pole in the tent is the public’s belief that the war can and will be won.  

Many other factors affect public support — including partisanship, general support for the president, estimations of the president’s resolve, the extent of elite consensus in support of the war, and so on. But the largest is this expectation of success. When the public believes the war can be won, then they will stomach mounting costs. When the public doesn’t, then mounting casualties cause public support to erode fairly quickly. Senator Kerry famously suggested that no one wants to be the last person to die for a mistake.  He misunderstood the situation. No one wants to be the last person to die for a lost cause.

Thus, the public turned on the Iraq war over the course of 2006 not because the rationale for the war eroded (the public had long since realized that Iraq’s WMD programs were not as far advanced as the Bush administration had claimed), but because the war looked increasingly unwinnable. The erosion in support stabilized in 2008, when the fortunes in Iraq reversed.

This puts President Obama’s Dover decision in a different light. While much of the commentary about this decision to allow the media to film and photograph the returning caskets of Americans killed in action was framed by the question of whether this would mobilize public opposition to the war (with some fearing that it might and others hoping that it would), our research suggests that it would only intensify previous attitudes – attitudes that are moving up or down on the war for deeper reasons having to do with the likely success of the war.

But this means, as my co-authors and I have argued, that Obama is living on borrowed time in Afghanistan because the public is fairly pessimistic about the situation there. According to one recent poll, they are split roughly evenly between optimists and pessimists, and as many as 60 percent in a December poll claimed the United States was not winning in Afghanistan. By way of comparison, on the eve of the midterm elections in 2006, a little over half of the American public thought we were losing in Iraq.

I have yet to find a pollster who has asked the proper prospective question — the crucial attitude is not how things are going right now but whether you believe things will eventually go well. (By analogy, what matters is not how the cancer patient feels about the chemo treatments right now, but whether the patient believes he will eventually beat the cancer). But I suspect prospective attitudes on Afghanistan are trending negative as well.

I see little reason for public optimism to improve in the short run. For starters, the Obama Administration has not yet made a credible effort to shore up public support for the war there (or in Iraq, for that matter). The White House is understandably focused on economic issues, but they have done a fair bit of messaging on Afghanistan. This messaging has addressed the expectations issue, and it is clear that the Obama team would like to define down success to make it easier to achieve.

However, I suspect that this effort could backfire, at least insofar as public opinion goes. The message involves first acknowledging that previous goals are unattainable ("success as you previously understood it is impossible") and then persuading the public that new goals are worthwhile ("here is a better measure of success") and more attainable ("the things that doomed the earlier effort won’t doom this"). That is not an impossible hurdle to clear, but it is a very high one.

The job is made more difficult because many of the secondary props of public support may be eroding. For instance, for quite a while now I have worried about the partisan divide on Afghanistan. I was struck by a poll cited by Morton Kondracke from last summer that showed only 55 percent of Democrats viewed the decision to invade Afghanistan as the right one. Republicans and Independents still supported the original decision by the super-majorities that the war had enjoyed from the beginning. In other words, most of the erosion in support had happened among Democrats. 

Fifty-five percent is still a majority, but it is a remarkably low number, given the fact that leaders of both parties have repeatedly emphasized that Afghanistan is a just war, and that Democrats in particular have labeled it the "good war." Perhaps that number has stabilized now that the Democrats "own" the war, what with the White House and both chambers of Congress under the control of the Democratic party. But I suspect that the underlying convictions that soured the Democrats on Afghanistan have not changed that abruptly.  

In light of this, the claim my co-authors and I offered — that "[w]e suspect the public is likely to continue to believe the war in Afghanistan was right" — probably warrants a footnote caveat or two. Support even on the retrospective question could erode (albeit more slowly than it did in Iraq) if Democrats do not rally to "their" war, or if President Obama inadvertently knocks down the case for the war by successfully implanting the idea that the terrorists who attacked us are no longer in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, and that Pakistan is the more urgent problem.

Another prop of public support is elite consensus. Right now, the public seems to be mirroring elite confusion on what to do. The most recent poll I have seen has the public equally split between increasing troops, decreasing troops, or keeping the troops in Afghanistan about the same. The military and other experts likewise seem to hold many conflicting opinions on what should be done (contrast this with this). And, for a real blast from 2006, you can’t get much more retro than this: Les Gelb arguing for the Baker-Hamilton solution in Afghanistan, while Max Boot and Fred and Kimberley Kagan argue for a surge.

This is a quandary we have seen before — in Iraq and, before that, in Vietnam. The situation stabilized in Iraq, but only after the Bush administration actually found a winning strategy (the surge) and spent virtually all of its remaining political capital implementing it. The situation never stabilized in Vietnam.  

I am sure it did not please the White House team to see Newsweek label Afghanistan "Obama’s Vietnam." But the analogy may be apt in one important respect: Obama may find himself spending far more time trying to mobilize public support to continue this war than he ever expected. And if he does not find a strategy that will reverse the situation on the ground in Afghanistan — and if he cannot explain this strategy to the American people — then he may find public support dropping faster than he can prop it up.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola