By Mark Mellman - 12/07/05 12:00 AM EST
Ever attentive to research, Karl Rove did put political scientist Peter Feaver on the National Security Council staff, presumably because Feaver co-authored papers arguing that public tolerance for wartime casualties is shaped primarily by “beliefs about the war’s likely success” and that the president could garner support “by persuading [people] that victory (in Iraq) is very likely.”
Sunday’s New York Times reported that Feaver’s word processor was primarily responsible for last week’s victory-themed Bush speech.
The White House could have hired me.
A year before Feaver’s papers appeared, this column wrote, “Some argue that the American public opinion cannot withstand casualties. The evidence suggests otherwise. Although every casualty is a tragedy of infinite proportions, public support for war does not rise and fall with casualties alone.” Rather I contended the public will make a more complex judgment about the “success” of the war.
Feaver could have been channeling me when he wrote the words that grabbed Rove’s attention.
The problem for the president is his failure to read or heed the rest of Feaver’s paper, or my column.
When Feaver argues support for the war could be increased by persuading Americans that success is “very” likely, that “very” is very important. Feaver and friends note that voters have a 75 percent chance of tolerating 1,500 casualties if they think success in Iraq is “very likely.” But their data suggest that willingness to countenance combat deaths declines to about 40 percent for those who believe success is even “somewhat likely.” In much more favorable circumstances, convincing the public that success is not just “somewhat” but “very” likely would be no mean feat. What works in Feaver’s theory is not feasible in the real world.
Careful readers of both Feaver’s paper and my earlier column (me) will also note differences in the ways we describe “success.” I suggested that the “specific elements of success are difficult to define, though, as with pornography, people know it when they see it.” I then articulated two general criteria by which voters might measure success, “clarity of purpose and continuing progress toward goals.”
If the president can specify neither the mission nor the benchmarks, how can Americans possibly see either clarity or progress?
With funding to conduct nine national polls, the Feaver group asked voters themselves to define success. Topping their lists were a “stable and democratic Iraqi government” and Iraqis’ ability to “provide their own security and maintain order.” In short, the closer American troops are to leaving, the more “successful” the war.
But Feaver and Bush confuse victory with success. We were victorious over Saddam’s armies long ago and may never witness the insurgency’s surrender. Success, the word Feaver uses in his questions, connotes something rather different. According to Feaver’s polls, success means creating the conditions that allow us to leave.
Hence the administration’s PR quagmire: When the president says our troops must stay the course, he is admitting that we cannot see success on the horizon. Only when he brings troops home can the public measure success — because only then will we be able to see whether Iraq has a stable, democratic government that can provide for its own security.
By telling the American people that our troops must remain indefinitely because Iraqis cannot secure their own country, Feaver’s strategy feeds public disillusionment, rather than affording the president a PR victory.
Feaver is right in suggesting Americans are willing to bear the burdens of war when they accept the rationale, understand the purpose and perceive progress. In merely arguing that we stay the course until victory, Bush provides none of those.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.