Shadow Government

When the public listens to the generals

The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force. This is the second installment in a larger project — last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force.

This is the second installment in a larger project — last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product looking at the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to choosing presidents. (I blogged about that one too.)

The basic intuition undergirding the project is the recognition that the military has a distinctive role in American politics. On the one hand, by tradition, norms, and law, military institutions are supposed to be apolitical — not involved in partisan politics and fulfilling an advisory role in the policymaking process. On the other hand, by virtue of the prominence of military tools in American foreign policy, the military’s greater professional expertise, and the enormous trust the public has in the military (especially in comparison with civilian political institutions), the military may in fact play a larger role than theoreticians of normative civil-military relations would like to see.

Our approach is empirical. We are trying to answer what is the effect, which is a necessary part of any normative evaluation of what ought to be the effect or role. So far as we have been able to determine, there is not a lot of good systematic data available on these questions beyond the ones we collected for this project. Our data are pretty extensive: YouGov administered the survey via the Internet and conducted interviews with 5,500 Americans between May 31, 2012, and July 28, 2012. The 5,500 interviews in our database are a sample matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest to be representative of the general population, as determined by the 2007 American Community Survey. But we don’t pretend this report offers the final word on the subject.

Our bottom line: 

The results of our recent national survey show that military opposition reduces public support for the use of force abroad by 7 percentage points, whereas military support increases overall public support by 3 percentage points. These military cues are most influential among Republican respondents. Furthermore, military influence on public opinion is greatest when it opposes (rather than supports) interventions abroad.

Read it and tell me what you think we got right or wrong.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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