Sag in War Support Pinned to Doubts on U.S. Purpose

As public support for the U.S. war in Iraq declines, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich tells Scott Simon the key issue is uncertainty about the war's purpose. He wrote The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Before our mission in Iraq is accomplished, there'll be tough days ahead. Victory in Iraq will require continued sacrifice by our men and women in uniform and the continued determination of our citizens. There'll be good days and there will be bad days in this war. I reject the pessimists in Washington who say we can't win this war.

SIMON: President Bush speaking in Washington, DC, on Wednesday to the Council on Foreign Relations. To date, the president has made two major addresses promoting his strategy for victory in Iraq, and more are planned in the lead-up to next week's parliamentary elections there.

Americans on the home front continue to be uneasy about whether US goals can be met in Iraq. We're going to be talking in more detail about US public opinion in a moment. Part of what worries many who are watching events unfold there and what also underscores the president's remark is yet another increase in violence in Iraq. At this hour, we're receiving reports than an Egyptian hostage has been shot dead near Tikrit. He worked as a translator at a US military base. There has also been no word on the status of four Westerners, including an American, taken hostage in Iraq two weeks ago. Kidnappers have said they will kill the four hostages unless American and Iraqi authorities release all Iraqi prisoners. There are, of course, more foreign hostages being held, presumably within Iraq's borders, and in the past 24 hours a US soldier has died and 11 others were reportedly injured in a suicide car bomb explosion in Baghdad.

Iraqi forces and those Iraqis who are running in elections next week are also in increasing danger as insurgent groups step up efforts to deter civilians from going to the polls. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a statement Friday, `The Iraqis deserve an election that is free from intimidation and violence,' a sentiment that was picked up and echoed in mosques throughout the country.

The president's approval rating rose this week in a New York Times/CBS poll, as the public began to give Mr. Bush credit for a improving economy. Those who responded to the poll also said they thought Republicans are better at handling terrorism. But much of the public still seems skeptical over the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Only a quarter of those polled believe Mr. Bush has what they called a clear plan for victory.

Andrew Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War." He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Boston University): Oh, glad to be with you.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the willingness of the American public to accept casualties. There have been over 2,000 battle deaths in Iraq at this particular point, and those are regrettable and tragic, but it's obviously far fewer than the 55,000 in Vietnam. What is the relationship between how the American public will accept or not casualties, in what kind of effort, and the policy that results?

Prof. BACEVICH: If you look at the last two and a half years, where there have been over 2,000 Americans killed in action, and I think well over 10,000 Americans wounded in action, I mean, one could say that Americans haven't really blinked with regard to casualties. But we're coming to the end of that tolerance for casualties, and I think that's in the willingness of the American people to replenish this force. I mean, there's been a good amount of press attention given to the woes of the Army, especially, in meeting its recruiting requirements. There's been a certain amount of press attention given to the even greater problems that the Reserve components are having in both recruiting and retention.

But step back a second. This is a country that prides itself in being the world's only superpower, and yet with a population of something like 290 million citizens, we in a sense are refusing to sustain an active-duty force of somewhere around 1.4 million. So that's where the casualty sensitivity is appearing. People simply aren't willing to sign up and serve.

SIMON: People aren't willing to sign up and serve. I wonder if I can get you to finish that sentence--why you think there's that reluctance.

Prof. BACEVICH: My own sense is that people are not willing to sign up and serve because they are coming to have real doubts about the winability of the Iraq War, and also perhaps not fully formed doubts about the relevance of the Iraq War given the larger Islamist threat that we're trying to deal with. In other words, does the war really make strategic sense?

SIMON: Let me ask you about the ways in which public opinion can inform or drive or affect, or sometimes not, policy during a period of war. A lot of people--politicians believe that if an effort is winning, the American people will support it; if it's not, that's when they fall away. And so they see the best way of affecting public opinion is to drive events.

Prof. BACEVICH: You're getting at the argument, I think, that the best way to affect public opinion is to--this is the Peter Feaver...

SIMON: Yes.

Prof. BACEVICH: ...argument.

SIMON: Peter Feaver, we should explain, is a Duke University professor. I gather you know him--who...

Prof. BACEVICH: I do know Peter. He's a friend of mine. He's currently on leave from Duke and works in the White House, but...

SIMON: Exactly. And his research, according to reports, was apparently the basis of some of the presentation the administration made of the case for war in Iraq recently.

Prof. BACEVICH: So reported The New York Times. And that does seem to have been one of the major themes that is part of this last round of presidential speech-making and that is a very prominent feature in that `strategy for victory in Iraq' document that was released two weeks ago. It's fine to keep insisting that we're going to win in Iraq. The real question that needs to be engaged is does this path to which we have committed ourselves, will it at the end of the day guarantee US national security and prevent another 9/11?

SIMON: Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. BACEVICH: Thank you.

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