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To Maintain That Support, Show Us What Success Means

By Peter D. Feaver

Sunday, October 7, 2001; Page B01

In pursuing its war on terrorism, the Bush administration faces daunting military and diplomatic challenges. But need it also worry about mobilizing public support? With the latest polls showing the public giving the president 90 percent approval ratings and endorsing the use of force at the same level, could the White House possibly hope for any more backing from the American people?

President Bush seems to think so. Every speech he givesappears to be primarily concerned with shoring up public opinion, warning us about the difficulties ahead and purposefully praising Americans for their "patience and resolve." The administration understands a basic truth about leading a democracy in war: Public support must never be taken for granted.

Even in allegedly "easy-to-support" wars, like World War II, political leaders have found it necessary to adjust the military tempo to boost public morale. All the more so in the current campaign, where the course is uncertain and the prospects for immediate success are bleak. Ironically, the initial wave of solidarity behind Bush actually intensifies concern, because there is no way the president can hold on to stratospheric approval ratings. As his support returns to more realistic levels, the headlines could become "Bush Approval Plummets." Implicit message: "Bush Is Losing the War."

Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the public will only support policies that are "cheap" in the sense of not costing American lives. According to this view, the public rejected U.S. intervention in Somalia because American soldiers died, while it accepted our actions in Kosovo because no Americans died. This is the myth of the casualty-phobic public -- a canard that genuinely casualty-phobic policymakers have found expedient, but which has left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of terrorist attack we just witnessed. What is Osama bin Laden's fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?

Actually, the public will support even a costly war provided the stakes warrant it and the president can persuasively promise victory. In this instance, the stakes could not be higher. What is lacking is a compelling account of victory, a frame for war aims that shapes how the public will interpret unfolding events.

Early attempts at providing such a frame were hopelessly, if understandably, grandiose. The administration has appropriately retreated from its vow to "rid the world of evil," "rid the world of evildoers," or even "rid the world of terrorists." Worthy goals but simply unachievable. The narrower definition of victory offered in the president's congressional address -- destroying terrorists with global reach -- was better, but still difficult to translate into concrete benchmarks answering the question: "Are we winning?"

Subsequently, in a New York Times op-ed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as much as said that in this war, the public may not know whether we are winning: "The public may see some dramatic military engagements that produce no apparent victory, or may be unaware of other actions that lead to major victories." Rumsfeld enjoys the virtue of being correct -- much of the action will take place in the shadows -- but correctness alone is unlikely to satisfy a public eager to see success (not to mention a news media that will refuse to accept any unsubstantiated "Trust us, we're winning" claims).

If the administration does not come up with better benchmarks, then potentially pernicious ones -- eroding public support and undermining the rest of the strategy -- will be foisted upon it. One corrosive measure of success equates winning with international coalition support. In this way, the coalition that Secretary of State Colin Powell is building stops being a means to an end and becomes an end in itself.

Adding coalition partners will be interpreted by the media and others as success -- "We must be winning, even the Iranians are supporting us." Coalition partners dropping away, conversely, will be translated as a sign we are losing -- "The campaign suffered another setback today as Iran balked at military operations."

The Defense Department repeatedly warns against this pathology, reminding us that the coalition will be ever-shifting (read "Allies will climb on and fall off the bandwagon, don't worry about it"). If the administration allows coalition size to become the yardstick, it will find itself unable to act for fear of offending a wobbly partner and thus "losing." The American public will rightly show little sympathy for paralysis.

Others may measure success in enemy body counts, as we did in the Vietnam War. "Failed" snatch-and-grabs, in this case, could be spun thus: "U.S. forces were unable to capture bin Laden today but did kill X number of al Qaeda foot soldiers." Body counts, as the Vietnam experience taught us, are dodgy measures of success because they lead inexorably to comparisons of casualty rates -- which side lost more in the last skirmish?

Over time, for lack of a better measure, the Bush administration may find that the media will define winning as low U.S. casualty rates. This is precisely the nightmare the Clinton administration created, most clearly in Somalia. The White House, having lost its stomach for the mission there, cultivated a myth that it was thepublic, enraged by the death of U.S. troops, that demanded an exit from that country. The public was really only defeat-phobic -- not casualty-phobic -- but President Bill Clinton allowed defeat to be measured chiefly in terms of U.S. losses.

This benchmark is unreasonable in the current situation given the inevitability of casualties, and the public seems to understand this. Indeed, in a recent Washington Post poll, fully two-thirds of the respondents who indicated they supported the use of force said they would still support the campaign even if "it meant getting into a long war with large numbers of U.S. troops killed or wounded . . . ." Measuring victory merely in terms of U.S. losses is unnecessary, because the public does not define winning this way, provided it is presented with a compelling alternative frame for success.

The outlines of such a frame can be sketched by linking three elements from the administration's emerging strategy. Success, in this formulation, means, above all, destroying the organization that conducted the Sept. 11 attacks; disrupting the ability of terrorists to conduct further attacks; and deterring other states from serving as Talibanesque sponsors of terrorism.

Destroying the perpetrators, the al Qaeda-Taliban axis, is the chief goal that makes the others possible. If the perpetrators are merely "put in a box" -- the spin developed since the Gulf War to explain away the awkward fact that Saddam Hussein remains in power -- this will mean that the war is going badly and we can forget about reaching other goals. A destroyed al Qaeda, on the other hand, would significantly disrupt future terrorist threats and would be a powerful deterrent to other aspiring terrorists.

Likewise, replacing the Taliban with a responsible Afghan government is the only way to deny future terrorists safe haven in that region. It also threatens the one thing other would-be terrorist sponsors cherish -- their own hold on power.

Look for the Bush team to release more fact sheets like the one distributed last week touting how security measures and the heightened vigor in intelligence/law enforcement are disrupting future terrorist attacks. Here, indicators of success will be harder to determine, but not impossible. Tally sheets of financial networks dismantled and individual plots stymied will convey clearly that the climate has gotten less hospitable for terrorists.

Finally, success must involve deterring future terrorist sponsors. This translates into behavioral changes from the governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria and elsewhere. In the absence of observable change, the Bush administration will have to revisit its decision not to expand the war to target these regimes.

The administration justified that decision on the plausible grounds that without a smoking gun implicating these regimes in the Sept. 11 attack, it was much easier to build a coalition against al Qaeda and the Taliban alone. What matters is not what these regimes say -- whether they express condolences or continue to chant "Death to America, the Great Satan." What matters are their deeds -- how vigorously their extensive secret police apparatus constrains Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.

President Bush has repeatedly said this war will be long and we should get on with our lives. In other words, the terrorists started Cold War II, not World War III. The president must stir national vigilance well beyond the levels of post-Cold War complacency, but he can't have the entire country on a permanent high war footing.

Yet precisely because the war will be long, it is that much harder to get on with our lives without seeing something that indicates we have started to win. For that we will need to see demonstrable progress toward the three clear goals outlined above. If it looks like America is winning, the president will have all the support he needs to make the victory complete. Without evidence of progress, however, even the rock-solid support he enjoys today could erode significantly.

Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University, is director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in Durham, N.C., and co-editor of "Soldiers and Civilians" (MIT Press).

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Swissrose (, October 06, 2001


". . . we should get on with our lives. In other words, the terrorists started Cold War II, not World War III." Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence amongst the postings in this forum and elsewhere that World War III may indeed be the result, or at least that the continuing terrorist threat to the infrastructure merits taking time out to PREPARE. The phrase "get on with our lives" strongly implies that no one need take steps in preparation, and is the worst disservice of omission that a patriotic American can commit in this war effort.

Patriotic Americans should demonstrate this patriotism by PREPARING for infrastructure and other disruptions. If enough people do prepare, the national ability to withstand a massive coordinated terrorist attack will be more robust. The robust recovery capability afforded by advance preparedness could even make the difference between recovery and the collapse of civilization.

-- Robert Riggs (, October 07, 2001.

My thoughts exactly.

-- Swissrose (, October 07, 2001.

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