Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bush's Feaver pitch

The current speech writer for our so-called president, at least for his Iraq push-back (against a doubting public, not, or at least not with any success that anyone can see, against the insurgents) is a political scientist named Peter Feaver who believes that the public will support a war with very high American casualties if they, the public, believe we are going to win the war. Whatever win means. There's the rub, or, from the point of view of the Bush administration, the propaganda opportunity.

Mr. Feaver has left academia to bring his theories to a venue they deserve, the moral tar-pit of the White House.

Mr. Feaver has two basic beliefs about the public's willingness to support a war, one of which he finds it convenient to disregard. These are: the public will support a war, despite high casualties, if the public believes it to be a worthy cause, and if the public believes our side will win. In Feaver's own words, "Our core argument is that the public's tolerance for the human costs of war is primarily shaped by the intersection of two crucial attitudes: beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war in the first place, and beliefs about the war's likely success."

The worthy cause proviso is the one Mr. Feaver has discarded to further his speech-writing career.

Bush, who according to the Washington Post, was reading Mr. Feaver's words in his recent speech, is now touting his certainty that we will, god bless my soul, win in Iraq. Just like we would have done in Vietnam, if the public had not chickened out.

Let's give Mr. Feaver the benefit of the doubt, here. But in doing so we should look at both parts of Mr. Feaver's theory, or what was formerly his theory before only the second half of it was bought, along with Mr. Feaver's services, by the White House. The part about it being a worthy cause bears looking at. I think the public has started to do that. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the public suddenly ceasing to be aware that the WMD claim--the moral basis of our war--was bogus.

In fact the now-inoperative WMD claim seems to have been implicit in a survey Feaver himself did not too long ago, with a colleague named Christopher Gelpi. Here are the questions asked of 3 groups of people in the survey.

When American troops are sent overseas, there are almost always casualties. For instance, 43 Americans were killed in Somalia, 383 in the Gulf War, roughly 54,000 in Korea, roughly 58,000 in Vietnam and roughly 400,000 in World War II. Imagine for a moment that a President decided to send military troops on one of the following missions. In your opinion, what would be the highest number of American military deaths that would be acceptable to achieve this goal?

A) To stabilize a democratic government in Congo__________.*

B) To prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction__________.

C) To defend Taiwan against invasion by China__________.

Military Mission-- Military Elite / Civilian Elite / Mass Public

Congo-- 284 / 484 / 6,861

Iraq-- 6,016 / 19,045 / 29,853

Taiwan-- 17,425 / 17,554 / 20,172

* The survey did not specify the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) or the Republic of Congo

Now there are several things to note about this survey, besides the fact that it's racist (or, more accurately, it reveals without comment the racism of the public) and conceptually crazy. First is that the "worthy cause" the survey itself specifies for Iraq is preventing Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

OK. Well, scratch that, since everyone in America now knows that was not the real reason we went to war. But given that Mr. Feaver believes, at least for the purposes of his current employment, that "victory" is the key, rather than the worthiness of the cause, what we have to do is substitute another basis for victory, and do it in retrospect, and hopes that the public forgets about the worthiness of the cause in its raw enthusiasm for our future triumph.

So that's what the White House is doing, under the tutelage of Mr. Feaver's political scientism.

Now it would seem like a lost cause, given the continued bad news from Iraq. But obviously, it is less a lost cause than convincing the public that Iraq had WMDs, given that no one in the known universe now believes that. A tough row to hoe is better than an impossible row to hoe is, I suppose, the thinking.

So the sleight of hand will have to be to redefine why we are there, which can be done on a day-by-day basis by someone like Mr. Rumsfeld, who is very flexible in his assessments of reality (and there are many others who would do just as well, like Senator Lieberman, rumored to be Rumsfeld's possible nonpartisan replacement), and then to claim we are making progress on today's basis for war.

And, if we are making "progress," we can have up to 29,853 American troops killed without the public turning against the war.

And I have a bridge to sell you. Cheap. Cheaper than that.

And to get back to the flaws in Feaver and Gelpi's survey, and its underlying theory, it seems to ignore the question of how many casualties the other side is willing to undergo, perhaps based on their own perception of the justice of their own cause. You might think that's where we went off the rails in Vietnam. And look at the Taiwan business--does anyone really think the Chinese would blink at taking a lot more casualties than we would in a confrontation about Taiwan?

What are these people thinking? I am not so much condemning the public, who are after all being asked to pull a number out of the air, as I am the pollsters, who ought to realize just how stupid, not to mention morally reprehensible, the very terms of the question are.

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