U.S. vs. Iraq: Bowing to Peer Pressure

From the March 1998 Trumpet Print Edition

“The only serious constraint on U.S. military action [in Iraq] is U.S. public opinion.” So says news analyst Joseph de Courcy of Intelligence Digest.

Indeed, America, as the world’s only superpower, can more or less do what it wants regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. But it is not the rest of the world that President Bill Clinton is worried about.

Courage to make strong, even unpopular, decisions is essential to real leadership. But the Clinton administration’s ship of state seems wholly steered by public opinion polls. And as the lead stories in this Trumpet issue point out, the U.S. public is proving itself a poor judge.

Never was this problem more on parade than during the globally televised February 18 town meeting at Ohio State University, where the Clinton administration attempted to shore up public support for military action in Iraq. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger encountered a noisy, opinionated crowd and considerable opposition to another war with Iraq. Hecklers shouting, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist war!” interrupted Madeleine Albright several times. Although the disrupters were a small minority, the overall mood of the meeting was one of distrust and disgust with U.S. policy.

After the meeting, the Clinton administration claimed victory and “overwhelming support” for their policy. Others didn’t see it that way. One major European ally called the meeting “a tactical mistake” by the administration because the show was almost certainly seen in Iraq and “may have inadvertently given Saddam Hussein good cheer.” Not to mention its fueling U.S. public criticism.

So what happened? Just two days later, February 20, Washington approved a last-ditch diplomacy trip by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, despite stern internal warnings that it would undermine America’s leverage. And sure enough, Annan returned with a deal that relieved the U.S. public—no shots were fired after all! But now, even Saddam is claiming victory. Why shouldn’t he? His popularity in the Arab community is up; he raised the enemy U.S.’s dander for months with no harm done; he is still in power.

And at the same time, America’s prospects for taking decisive action against Iraq are severely crippled. After all, if the public didn’t want a war before, while Hussein was flagrantly violating UN mandates, what about after a compromise which seems to have smoothed everything over? How easy it is for uninformed, unconcerned people to look the other way. And how easy for politicians whose prime concern is approval ratings to follow suit.

In the words of De Courcy, “Being the world’s only superpower is not a popularity contest.” Turn it into one, and you won’t stay there for long.