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On an overcast day in late February 2003, an Army Ranger stationed at Fort Lewis, WA, sat down with his private thoughts. Along with his brother, the young man had joined the military in the months after the 9/11 attacks, drawn to the service by what he saw as his patriotic duty to fight terrorism. Since enlisting, he had suffered through grueling basic training and the demanding Ranger Indoctrination Program. He was ready for combat.
But as it became clear during the winter that the United States was marching toward a military conflict in Iraq, he was unsettled. Writing in his journal seventeen days after Colin Powell delivered his dramatic presentation at the United Nations about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the soldier expressed misgivings about the looming war and what it would mean for him and his brother, whom he called “Nub:”
It may be very soon that Nub & I will be called upon to take part in something I see no clear purpose for.…Were our case for war even somewhat justifiable, no doubt many of our traditional allies…would be praising our initiative.…However, every leader in the world, with a few exceptions, is crying foul, as is the voice of much of the people. This…leads me to believe that we have little or no justification other than our imperial whim.
As the Bush administration continued its push for military action during the winter of 2002–2003, many ordinary Americans remained unconvinced of the necessity, wisdom, and morality of a war against Iraq. Among their chief reasons for skepticism was the evident lack of broad endorsement from foreign governments and international organizations. A patron in an Atlanta barbershop told ABC News in January 2003 that he was opposed to a unilateral U.S. strike: “Not without everybody’s support,” he said. “I’d like to leave it up to the United Nations to decide instead of Bush.” For this man and others like him, international backing would have lent military action a legitimacy that it otherwise lacked. Contrary to many academic and popular views of the U.S. public as uninterested in – or even hostile toward – overseas perspectives on foreign policy, a significant number of ordinary Americans expressed opposition to war with Iraq even in a political environment suffused with displays of militaristic patriotism and devoid of significant mainstream domestic elite criticism of the Bush administration.
Whereas general uneasiness with the idea of preemptive and unilateral U.S. military action was not uncommon among Democratic and independent citizens in 2002, this skepticism required a trigger to become activated in the specific context of the potential invasion of Iraq: people’s basic values are unlikely to be reflected in their opinions about specific policy proposals unless they receive information and arguments from credible sources that connect those general predispositions to the particular issue under discussion (Zaller 1992). In Chapter 2, we demonstrated that, during the months before U.S. troops began the fateful assault on Baghdad, these arguments came primarily from the leaders of foreign governments and officials from international organizations who appeared regularly in mainstream media as foils to the Bush administration’s relentless push for military action. In this chapter, we build on that analysis of news coverage to offer the first empirical demonstration of foreign elite effects on mass U.S. public opinion. Such criticism from overseas cannot simply fill the important democratic role that domestic elite opposition to war can play.
It was March 20, 2003. The United States was at war. Three nights earlier, in a prime-time address to the nation, President George W. Bush had issued Saddam Hussein an ultimatum: leave Iraq within forty-eight hours or face the prospect of an invasion “commenced at the time of our choosing.” Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, had refused to flee.
And then, at 10:15 pm on the East Coast, Bush made good on the threat. He announced that he had ordered an attack on Baghdad. The U.S. military machine’s “shock and awe” campaign had begun, the first salvo in a conflict that would prove bloodier and costlier than most Americans had anticipated, and whose political and economic consequences likely would be felt generations down the line.
Despite the inherent dangers and uncertainty that attend any military conflict, mainstream media coverage in the days surrounding the invasion highlighted the aura of national solidarity. With polls showing roughly seven in ten citizens endorsing military action, “Americans have rallied strongly around President Bush and accepted his call for war as the only practical way to remove Saddam Hussein and end the threat posed by his weapons of mass destruction,” led a Chattanooga Times Free Press story.
On Monday, March 10, 2003, Dan Rather appeared at the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News. Just as he had on so many nights that winter, the veteran newsman led the broadcast with a package about what the network was billing as the “Showdown with Saddam.”
“President Bush spent much of this day on the phone,” Rather intoned, “trying to line up support for a new UN Security Council resolution that would, in effect, authorize war against Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not disarm by next Monday.”
Bush was finding the road difficult. CBS reporter Bill Plante told viewers that the president had spent the day on a “series of urgent phone calls to world leaders, making the argument that if the UN fails to act in Iraq, it will be walking away from a moral imperative.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher amplified the theme, telling reporters that U.S. intervention would liberate the Iraqi people “from a cloak of brutal dictatorship that tortures, that kills.”
Nearly one month before U.S. forces began their assault on Baghdad in the spring of 2003, then-eighty-five-year-old Robert Byrd took the Senate floor to scold his colleagues for failing to debate the looming preemptive war on Iraq. Asserting that while ordinary Americans were talking at home about this historic military confrontation and its potential consequences for their security and prosperity, the West Virginia Democrat said with characteristic rhetorical flourish:
This chamber is for the most part ominously, dreadfully silent. You can hear a pin drop. Listen. You can hear a pin drop. There is no debate. There is no discussion. There is no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.
Ticking off the names of hallowed signatories of the Declaration of Independence and delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Byrd suggested that Democrats and Republicans alike were tarnishing their institutional legacy by failing to thoroughly discuss momentous national decisions: “We stand passively mute in the Senate today, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. This is no small conflagration that we contemplate. It is not going to be a video game.”
In Influence from Abroad, Danny Hayes and Matt Guardino show that United States public opinion about American foreign policy can be shaped by foreign leaders and representatives of international organizations. By studying news coverage, elite debate, and public opinion prior to the Iraq War, the authors demonstrate that US media outlets aired and published a significant amount of opposition to the invasion from official sources abroad, including British, French, and United Nations representatives. In turn, these foreign voices - to which millions of Americans were exposed - drove many Democrats and independents to signal opposition to the war, even as domestic elites supported it. Contrary to conventional wisdom that Americans care little about the views of foreigners, this book shows that international officials can alter domestic public opinion, but only when the media deem them newsworthy. Their conclusions raise significant questions about the democratic quality of United States foreign policy debates.
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