Bryan Caplan  

Iraq: Disaster By Popular Demand

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Here's my April, 2007 op-ed on voter irrationality that never found a home.

"Power to the people" - war protestors have been saying it for decades.   The more you study public opinion, though, the more peculiar this slogan seems.  When fighting started in Iraq, the American public backed the war by three-to-one.  So in all honesty, isn't it "the people" who got us where we are today?

True, some support stemmed from our leaders' deceptive advertising.  But we can still fault the public for being gullible; this is hardly the first time our leaders have bent the truth to enter a war.  In any case, leaders don't have to lie to get the public behind them.  Almost every war begins with strong public support.  Public opinion researchers call this the "rally-round-the-flag" effect.  Strange as it sounds, simply entering a war makes the war popular - for a while.

Who am I to second-guess public opinion?  Fortunately, I don't have to.  Another well-established pattern is that, given time, the public second-guesses itself.  The rally-round-the-flag effect doesn't last forever.  As political scientist John Mueller documents, after a year or so of foreseeable troubles, public support for wars steadily drops.  The remarkable fact about the Iraq war is that it already unpopular, even though, by the standards of Korea or Vietnam, casualties remain low.

Now think about the incentives that the public gives its leaders.  The rally-round-the-flag effect means that, for any semi-plausible war, decision-makers can count on a burst of popular support.  It also means that Doubting Thomases who express reservations at the outset of a conflict are risking their careers.  In short, public opinion gives leaders an incentive to start wars, cross their fingers, and hope things work out - and skeptics an incentive to keep their criticism to themselves until it is too late to do much good.

It gets worse.  If you give the public a year, some casualties, and some scandals - all of which are practically inevitable - public support drops off.  But this hardly compensates for earlier bad incentives.  Before the majority grows disillusioned, the politicians who planned the war have frequently been reelected.  Yes, the swing in public opinion gives opponents - and even friends - of the current regime incentives to reverse course.  But public opinion gives them these incentives whether or not continued support for the war has become the lesser evil.  Would-be critics who were cowed by public opinion during the early phase of the war now have an incentive to pander - to paint withdrawal as a virtual free lunch.

Considering the incentives that politicians face, we should be grateful that fiascos like the Iraq war are so rare.  Leaders could  be a lot less responsible without forfeiting public support.  If the public greeted plans for war with hard questions instead of flag-waving, politicians would be a lot more cautious - and we would be a lot less likely to get in over our heads.

In the eyes of some observers, admittedly, the main thing to be cautious of is caution itself.  Dangerous times call for decisive action.  As Kennedy advisor Dean Acheson once told a skeptical professor: "You think the President should be warned. You're wrong.  The President should be given confidence."

If the rally-round-the-flag effect lasted forever, the Achesons of the world might be right.  I'm skeptical, but it's possible.  Given the way that public opinion works, though, intelligent hawks ought to think again.  Last year, Rumsfeld warned against "the dangers of giving the enemy the false impression that Americans cannot stomach a tough fight."  The study of public opinion suggests that this is exactly the impression the Iraq War is likely to leave. 

Next time around, intelligent hawks need to ask themselves: "Does it really serve the national interest to take advantage of the rally-round-the-flag effect to start a war, if public opinion will reverse long before the war can be won?"  It's a democracy, after all; once public opinion reverses, policy will not be far behind.

During the 2008 election, candidates are sure to tell us a great deal about "what the American people want."  Every candidate proudly claims to have a hand on the pulse of the nation.  But in truth, it is pretty easy to find out what Americans want.  A vast quantity of high-quality public opinion data on virtually every political topic is only a mouse click away.  If the candidates cared about good policy half as much as they care about getting elected, they would ask a different - and harder  - question: "Do the policies that the American people want actually make sense?" 

Bryan Caplan is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press).

COMMENTS (7 to date)
ThomasH writes:

This could generalize to the "do something" syndrome. Although the real consequences were fewer, the ebola scare for the 2014 elections and the Syrian refugee terrorist scare for the 2016 elections showed just how effective scare mongering can be as an electoral strategy. [Paul Krugman would probably add the inflation scare that some folk have tried to gin up.]

E. Harding writes:

Is this the same with the Libyan people and their overwhelming support for the NATO bombing of Libya?

Richard A. writes:

When fighting started in Iraq, the American public backed the war by three-to-one.

Let's not forget that the MSM backed this war at the time. It is hard for many to think independently from the MSM.

_NL writes:

I think these two trends could be interpreted as saying "go to war as long as you're sure it will be over before people get tired of it."

Sort of the martial equivalent of George Costanza's "leave on a high note" theory.

Except that must be at least partially incomplete, because it didn't really work that way with the kinetic action in Libya. Not much boost, though it was mostly over (for the US) pretty quickly.

Mark Bahner writes:

I think one significant check on getting involved in bad wars would be if The People (and Congress) demanded that the President follow the Constitution and not go to war without a congressional declaration of war.

Colombo writes:

Why not undoing something instead of doing something?

Daublin writes:

Let's not forget that Iraq is a democrocy now, and that women get to vote, and that the Hussein family is no longer terrorizing the population. As well, lets not forget that--per Colombo's comment about *undoing something*--Saddam Hussein was himself a creation of American influence.

Maybe these improvements are not worth the cost, but they seem worth acknowledging. Some heavy-hitting Middle Eastern Muslim clerics are now telling their followers to rally around a democratic government. Many of them are telling women to go out and vote even if their husbands don't want them to.

When people ignore these improvements, I feel like they've been reading too many politics blogs. Sadaam Hussein was really bad stuff. He caused way more harm to humanity than Osama bin Laden ever did.

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