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July 3, 2005 - The Uses of the Perception of Success

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So it is out of this deep faith in the future that they are able to move out and adjourn the councils of despair, and to bring new light in the dark chambers of pessimism…



As a follow up to the item Failure Is an Option note that this "failure" idea is gaining some momentum.

Well, there is a conflict here.  As Peter Baker and Dan Balz report in the Washington Post on the June 30 front page –


In shaping their message, White House officials have drawn on the work of Duke University political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. Feaver, who served on the staff of the National Security Council in the early years of the Clinton administration, joined the Bush NSC staff about a month ago as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform.

Feaver and Gelpi categorized people on the basis of two questions: "Was the decision to go to war in Iraq right or wrong?" and "Can the United States ultimately win?" In their analysis, the key issue now is how people feel about the prospect of winning. They concluded that many of the questions asked in public opinion polls - such as whether going to war was worth it and whether casualties are at an unacceptable level - are far less relevant now in gauging public tolerance or patience for the road ahead than the question of whether people believe the war is winnable.

"The most important single factor in determining public support for a war is the perception that the mission will succeed," Gelpi said in an interview yesterday.


And that's the problem.  This war may just not be winnable.

At Juan Cole's site Informed Comment the idea has been under discussion for some time, particularly with Professor Cole's deconstruction of the Tuesday night Bush speech to explain why we must "stay the course."  Cole, often mentioned here, is that professor of history at the University of Michigan, the middle-east expert on Iraq who travels down to Washington to testify before congress.  He thought the speech way far beyond foolish.  Although he did not use the word "delusional" he did note Bush was not discussing any reality Middle East experts know.

Thursday, June 30, Cole published a letter from Alan Richards.


Here is who he is, as made clear by the Naval Warfare College (our own navy, by the way) –


Alan Richards is a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was educated in political science, Middle Eastern studies, and economics at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Between 1992 and 1994 Professor Richards worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development as a senior political economist, conducting or directing political economy analyses. He has taught economics at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University, and the American University in Cairo. With John Waterbury he coauthored A Political Economy of the Middle East (2d ed., 1996). He was a MacArthur Fellow in International Environmental Policy for the University of California. He is an advisory editor of Middle East Policy and a frequent consultant to the U.S. government on Middle Eastern affairs.


Well, he seems to be reputable, even if Santa Cruz is known out here as the true center of left-over sixties hippie culture, the land of bra-less old women with hairy legs, wearing Birkenstocks of course, lunching in shady vegan restaurants.  But the University of California Santa Cruz is pretty well respected.

Richards' take on things?


"The Iraq Avalanche Cannot be Stopped"

In reviewing all the discussion of the speech, Richards notes this:


… I am troubled by what I perceive as a tacit assumption - a very American assumption - underlying most of the discussion. It seems to me that even "pessimists" are actually "optimists": they assume that there exists in Iraq and the Gulf some "solution", some course of action which can actually lead to an outcome other than widespread, prolonged violence, with devastating economic, political, and social consequences.

I regret to say that I think this is wrong. There is no "solution" to this mess; it is sometimes not possible to "fix" things which have been broken. I can see no course of action which will prevent widespread violence, regional social upheaval, and economic hammering administered by oil price shocks. This is why so many of us opposed the invasion of Iraq so strenuously in the first place! We thought that it would unleash irreversible adverse consequences for (conventionally defined) US interests in the region. I am very sorry to say that I still think we were right.


Then he lists six specific reasons why, and those who like details of the region and economics can click on the link and read all about the situation, as this man sees it.  It's not pretty.

And he ends with this:


Please don't misunderstand me: I am not advocating regional-crisis-cum-oil-price-spike. I simply think that it is probably unavoidable. If we leave, there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability, and if we stay there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability. If there is (as I tend to think) a large crisis looming on the horizon, it will certainly be ugly, even hideous. And then - something else will happen. The one thing I don't think is possible is to avoid it.

So let me close where I began: I think it is delusional to imagine that there exists a "solution" to the mess in Iraq. From this perspective, the folly of Bush, Cheney and Company in invading Iraq is even worse than most informed observers of the region already think. Starting an avalanche is certainly criminal. It does not follow, however, that such a phenomenon can be stopped once it has begun.


But who are you going to believe.  "Most informed observers" - or our leaders?

Many on the left, like Geov Parrish, have decided (he didn't like the speech either) –


How many times must we hear this president, this administration, use 9-11 as a suggested free pass for pursuing any half-assed policy that comes to mind? How often is our intelligence going to be insulted by the vaguely racist insinuation that any war against a Muslim nation is justified because the 9-11 terrorists were Muslim? How many more American soldiers are going to die while this White House insists, against all evidence, that there's a "clear path to victory"? How many more Iraqis must die to sate the stubbornness of political leaders halfway around the world?

… I'm tired of the thin rationalizations that have characterized not only the case for going to war, but the supposedly informed assessments of how that war is going - polyannaish drivel contradicted every time one turns on the evening news. The sacrifice, Bush told us Tuesday, is "worth it." To whom? Halliburton? Bechtel? And let's not even try to talk about how we extract ourselves from this mess. It's a verboten topic, in part because Bush doesn't have the guts or honesty to admit that it's a mess in the first place.

The question of what to do about Iraq is a tricky one with no easy answers. Now that we're there, we have a responsibility to help clean up the mess we've created. Too, there's a clear national interest in not allowing Iraq to slip into another Shiite autocratic theocracy ala Iran, an all too realistic possibility. Iraq's current puppet government and its army is no match for the insurgency, in large part because it has no legitimacy among Irarqi people. Rumsfeld and Bush, meanwhile, are trying to get away with using far fewer troops than their generals think are needed for the job. And the services can't recruit the soldiers needed to do the job. A multinational force would be most effective, but Bush won't cede that kind of control.

In such a policy quagmire, the least helpful possible approach is exactly what Dubya is doing: squeezing his eyes real tight, proclaiming his fealty to the flag, and swearing that he loves the troops. It's meaningless gibberish, and the American public knows it. It's also dishonest, because Bush is refusing to deal with the very real problems that are a direct consequence of decisions that he, and nobody else, made.


Well, that appeared in Working for Change, and may be "out of the mainstream," so to speak.

More in the mainstream is Bob Herbert in the New York Times with is June 30 column, Dangerous Incompetence.  That open with this: "The president who displayed his contempt for Iraqi militants two years ago with the taunt "bring 'em on" had to go on television Tuesday night to urge Americans not to abandon support for the war that he foolishly started but can't figure out how to win."

Had to go on television?  Had to?  I'm not sure that is what Bush supports would say.  But be that as it may, you get the idea.

What Herbert is saying is more of the same –


The incompetence at the highest levels of government in Washington has undermined the U.S. troops who have fought honorably and bravely in Iraq, which is why the troops are now stuck in a murderous quagmire. If a Democratic administration had conducted a war this incompetently, the Republicans in Congress would be dusting off their impeachment manuals.

The administration seems to have learned nothing in the past two years. Dick Cheney, who told us the troops would be "greeted as liberators," now assures us that the insurgency is in its last throes. And the president, who never listened to warnings that he was going to war with too few troops, still refuses to acknowledge that there are not enough U.S. forces deployed to pacify Iraq.

The Times's Richard A. Oppel Jr. wrote an article recently about a tragically common occurrence in Iraq: U.S. forces fight to free cities and towns from the grip of insurgents, and then leave. With insufficient forces left behind to secure the liberated areas, the insurgents return.

"We have a finite number of troops," said Maj. Chris Kennedy of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. "But if you pull out of an area and don't leave security forces in it, all you're going to do is leave the door open for them to come back. This is what our lack of combat power has done to us throughout the country."

The latest fantasy out of Washington is that American-trained Iraqi forces will ultimately be able to do what the American forces have not: defeat the insurgency and pacify Iraq.

"We've learned that Iraqis are courageous and that they need additional skills," said Mr. Bush in his television address. "And that is why a major part of our mission is to train them so they can do the fighting, and then our troops can come home."

Don't hold your breath. This is another example of the administration's inability to distinguish between a strategy and a wish.


They're different?  Don't tell anybody.

At Groom Lake's Best of the Blogs you get this more succinct summary of the message Tuesday night: "You trusted me to screw this up, trust me to screw it up more, and if you don't trust me to screw it up more you hate America."

So the opposition is railing against Bush.  Many more sense they've been had - as early in the week ABC News reported a record fifty-seven percent of the population now says the administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence that pre-war Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and fifty-three percent of Americans say the war was not worth fighting.  Maybe he had to make the speech.

Will those numbers change?  Perhaps.

But this does not bode well –


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - President Bush's address to the nation, urging Americans to stand firm in Iraq, drew the smallest TV audience of his tenure, Nielsen Media Research reported on Wednesday.

Bush's speech on Tuesday night at the Ft. Bragg military base in North Carolina averaged 23 million viewers combined on the four major U.S. broadcast networks and three leading cable news channels networks that carried the speech, Nielsen said.

That number was 8.6 million viewers below Bush's previous low as president, his Aug. 9, 2001 speech on stem cell research, which was carried on six networks.

Even Bush's last prime-time address, his April 28 speech on Social Security overhaul, drew more viewers, 32.7 million.

Bush garnered the biggest U.S. TV audience of his presidency -- 82 million viewers on nine networks -- when he addressed a joint session of Congress nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

By comparison, his May 1, 2003, speech from the deck of an aircraft carrier declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq averaged 48.4 million viewers.


Nor does this, from the other Hollywood, the one in Florida, reporting that local veterans there say the backing for Bush on Iraq is just gone –


June 29, 2005
HOLLYWOOD - The televisions at VFW Post 2500 in Hollywood were tuned to President Bush on Tuesday, but his words weren't getting rapt attention.

About 30 people were around the bar drinking, chatting, smoking as the president talked. "Does it have to be so loud?" asked Barbara Flint as she sat next to Jerry Giblock, a visiting Vietnam veteran.

"He's running scared," said Giblock, 63, a former Post 2500 member who lives in Anchorage, Ala. "His poll numbers are so low, he's got to say something, but the support is gone. It's gone. I don't think there's anybody in here who's behind him." ...


Not good.

One senses the numbers aren't going to change.  Those two political scientists from Duke may be onto something - the key task is to stress winning this thing.  Say we can fix this.  Change the perception.  That will change the numbers.

But it didn't work - or it hasn't worked this week.

The new Zogby Poll was released late in the day June 30 - No Bounce: Bush Job Approval Unchanged by War Speech; Question on Impeachment Shows Polarization of Nation with this summary from Tim Grieve:


A Zogby poll taken a week before the speech had 56 percent of the public saying they disapproved of the president's job performance. The new poll, taken after the speech, has 56 percent of the public saying they disapprove of the president's job performance. The percent of the public that approves of the job George W. Bush is doing dropped from 44 to 43 percent, a change John Zogby called statistically insignificant.

"It's all about the war,'' Zogby tells Bloomberg. "This war has really polarized Americans. This is what his presidency is all about. The only thing that could change is if things start to go better on the ground, and it's not good to be at the mercy of external events."

Another poll result that's "not good" for the president: The concept of impeachment is slowly sinking in for a substantial portion of the American people. It's not a majority, but 42 percent of the public, including 25 percent of the Republicans surveyed, now say that Bush should be impeached if - and is this really an "if," now? - he misled the country about the reasons for going to war.


Zogby himself was on MSNBC, on the Olbermann "Countdown" show, remote from Utica, New York, commenting on the poll.  Olbermann played up the one-quarter-of-Republicans-would-impeach number.  Zogby shrugged and said they'd poll that again next month.  And they did not discuss that big "if" - which is only a hypothetical.  Most of that twenty-five percent of impeachment-minded Republicans would ask, "What really is a lie?"

Curiously, over at Corrente, Tom points to these numbers (with links to the source data) –


ABC News Poll. December 16, 1998. N=510 adults nationwide.

"As you may know, the House of Representatives is expected to vote soon on whether or not to impeach Bill Clinton. If the House impeaches him, the Senate will hold a trial to decide whether or not Clinton should be removed from office. Based on what you know, do you think the House should or should not impeach Clinton?"

Should - 40 percent
Should not - 58 percent
No opinion - 2 percent


Yes, support for Bush's impeachment is now higher than it ever was for the impeachment of Clinton.

So what?

Now the people who know the region and its history and its current politics say, essentially, even that doesn't matter much.  Some things cannot be fixed.

There is perception.  There is reality.


Note: The title here is from a speech that Martin Luther King delivered in 1961 to the annual meeting of the Fellowship of the Concerned in Atlanta.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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