Among the many lessons the U.S. is being taught in the travails of Iraq, one stands out because it should not have been necessary. Let's call this lesson the rule of proportionate mandate.
The rule is this: the scope of your plans must be matched by the breadth of your support. Remaking the Middle East by overthrowing its ugliest autocratic government was a bold undertaking. In concept, it may have been visionary. But to attempt it without overwhelming support from key constituencies was to court disaster.
Much that we have learned in Iraq has become clear in hindsight. But this one, basic rule should have been clear from the outset.
Before invading Iraq, the administration of President Bush needed the broad backing of three constituencies: the Iraqi people, the international community and the American public. In each case, the administration heard just enough of what it wanted to hear to conclude it had sufficient support. In each case, it was wrong.
In 2003, U.S. intelligence was satisfied it could count on resistance to Saddam Hussein among Kurds in northern Iraq, who were already semi-autonomous. The Shiite Arabs in the south were also presumably anti-Saddam. And if some Sunni in central Iraq remained loyal to the Baathist regime, they would be relatively few and readily isolated.
We know now that support for a U.S. invasion was overstated, that very few Iraqis backed a long-term U.S. occupation and that even a remnant of determined Sunni can sustain a deadly insurgency indefinitely. In other words, Iraqi support for the overthrow of Saddam was real, but ultimately insufficient to the full scope of the American project.
In the international sphere, the U.S. move into Iraq was supported by Great Britain and some other European states. But the United Nations preferred a course of more deliberate pressure on Saddam. More important, the U.S. did not have the Islamic allies it had in the 1991 war to oust Saddam from Kuwait. Most of these states feared the consequences of a greater American presence in their geographic midst.
So despite the much-invoked "coalition of the willing," the U.S.-led invasion looked disturbingly unilateral in 2003. And the ongoing occupation looks even more so today, as the ranks of coalition partners have thinned.
As for the third constituency, the American public, we were sold on the war intellectually as a defensive strike to rid the world of a tyrant who had (or would soon have) weapons of mass destruction. On a more visceral level, the war had appeal as revenge for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — even without a connection between Iraq and those attacks. Today, of course, the weapons justification is regarded as either an error or a sham. The second basis remains, and the president now regularly refers to the war in Iraq as making Americans safer.
In 2003, the war pitch worked well enough to win a polling majority. But it was never an overwhelming majority, as in the case of Pearl Harbor or the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. This lack of a full mandate, proportionate to the ambition of the war policy, cast a cloud over the endeavor from the start.
Because the margin in favor of war was never that great, the inevitable dwindling of support in the face of adversity and frustration has now reduced the level of public support well below 50 percent. In the latest Gallup polls, 54 percent said the war was a mistake, not worth its cost. An even greater percentage, 57 percent, said the Iraq war is not making Americans safer.
This is far from being our first experience with the rule of proportionate mandate. Most Americans supported the wars in Korea and Vietnam, at least at first, but not enough to maintain the kind of national effort those wars turned out to demand.
The need for broad backing affects domestic issues as well. The obvious example was President Bill Clinton's abortive attempt to redesign the nation's health care system in 1993 and 1994. Clinton's 42 percent plurality in the three-way election of 1992 was nowhere near enough to propel that kind of change in the face of concerted opposition. In similar fashion, President Bush has found that his historically narrow re-election margin lent him little momentum with which to tackle the Social Security system this year.
This is not to say that no president can govern in a country so politically divided as ours. In the contemporary American system, the president must lead. Even those who have become president upon the death of their predecessors have done so.
But there are limits. All presidents must govern within the norms of representative democracy, and these include the rule of proportionate mandate. Push a minimal majority too hard and it will be a majority no more. Pushing further still raises fundamental questions of legitimacy.