Public opinion and Endless War

Political elites expend substantial efforts to prevent anti-war sentiment from being heard: and for good reason

Published June 20, 2011 1:21PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, yesterday, Meet the Press, to those questioning the war in Libya:

Congress should sort of shut up and not empower Qadhafi.

Sen. John Kerry, May 8, 2011, Face the Nation, to those questioning what happened during the bin Laden killing:

We need to shut up and move on about, you know, the realities of what happened in that building.

Bill Kristol, February 21, 2007, Fox News Sunday, to those questioning the "surge" in Iraq

It's so irresponsible that they can't be quiet for six or nine months and say the president has made a decision. . . .so let's give it a chance to work.

Joe Lieberman, December 7, 2005, Senate floor, to Iraq War critics:

It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril.


These demands that the nation's continuous use of war and violence not even be questioned are easy to understand.  The nature of being an empire entails not only ruling the world through force, but also ensuring that the Emperor's decrees and actions cannot be meaningfully challenged at home.  That's why the controversy over Obama's refusal to seek Congressional approval for the war in Libya matters: this is an unpopular war, and requiring him to obtain approval preserves at least some residual democratic process -- not just for this war but also future ones.

Beyond the desire to render democratic opinion irrelevant, there is another, more specific reason why war advocates so frequently insist that critics should "shut up": because the policies they are implementing are so ludicrous and indefensible and redound to the benefit of a tiny sliver of the population.  They can't be sustained if there is debate and examination over them. 

Today, The New York Times describes the "growth market" for drones: at a time when Washington conspires to reduce basic entitlements based on alarmist warnings over the deficit, "the Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year" -- that includes dramatic increases in the number, types and uses of those weapons.  The NYT says this "explosion" is "transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars":  note how the notion that the U.S. fights multiple "wars" at all times is just a given.  In particular, the NYT correctly notes that the proliferation of drones will also certainly make wars more likely, given the perception that they are cost-free (at least to Americans, but not, of course, to the increasing number of countries bombed by sky robots).  That is another reason to care about the debate over Libya:  if Obama succeeds in entrenching the notion that drone attacks are not "wars" or even "hostilities," he and future presidents will be able to bomb other countries with even fewer constraints than they have now.

This state of Endless War continues despite the fact that, as a new poll shows, 72% of Americans believe the U.S. is fighting too many wars.  The poll itself is revealingly amusing: in what other country could that question -- are we fighting too many wars? -- even be meaningfully asked?  It's also striking that almost 3 out of 4 Americans -- not exactly renown around the world for being war-shy -- believe the U.S. is fighting too many wars given that their country is ruled by a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.

But what is shown by the results of that poll is that the war policies which America's political elites shield from public debate are extremely and increasingly unpopular.  Indeed, a recent Pew poll revealed that there are roughly equal majorities across the ideological spectrum in favor of greater "isolationism" and a "reduction of overseas military commitments."  Yet the political class and the private National Security State which unimaginably profit from these wars are able to propagate those policies with no end in sight; a NYT article this morning about efforts this week t0 restrict spending for the Libya War provide a glimpse into how that is managed:

Any measures to end or reduce financing for the military’s involvement in the NATO-led airstrikes in Libya are likely to divide members of Congress. They are split in both the House and Senate between two slightly incongruous alliances: antiwar Democrats and Republicans who are angry about the usurping of Congressional authority, and Democrats who do not wish to go against the president, joined by hawkish Republicans who strongly support America’s role in Libya.

As is true for the war in Afghanistan and Obama's Bush-Cheney-mimicking Terrorism policies, this is the coalition that serves as the Democratic President's key allies: partisan loyalists unwilling to contradict their party's President no matter what he does, and "hawkish" Republicans who are always pro-war and eager to live under an unrestrained Executive.  That is the faction that serves the private defense industry, enables Obama to do what he wants in these realms, and shields these policies from examination.  But the linchpin of those efforts is to ensure that public opinion remains irrelevant in deciding when, why and how often America wages war.  These "shut up" moments are unusual only in that they are candid expressions of that pervasive mindset.

* * * * * 

I was on Democracy Now this morning discussing Obama and Libya and several other related matters.  That segment can be viewed here:




UPDATE:  Speaking of efforts to stifle criticisms, Matt Yglesias cites a poll taken at this weekend's Netroots Nation convention in order to claim that "the proximate problem faced by would-be left-wing critics of President Obama is that they generally have much less credibility with the progressive constituency than the president does himself."  But the poll he cites finds that -- at a convention filled with little other than Democratic Party activists, whose overarching political objective by their own description is to elect Democratic politicians -- only 27% "strongly approve" of Obama; 53% approve only "somewhat," while 20% express some form of disapproval (strong or somewhat). 

Contrary to Yglesias' belief and/or desire, a poll of hard-core Democrats that finds that only 27% "strongly approve" of their own Party's president is hardly some sign that criticisms of him are unwelcome and lack credibility: quite the opposite. It's hardly a surprise that when given a binary choice by Gallup of approve/disapprove, the vast majority of self-identified partisans ("Democrats") will say they "approve" of their party's President -- that's little more than a tribal litmus test to declare which side you're on -- but both polls show a substantial constituency of some degree of dissatisfaction.  Other polls not cited by Yglesias undercut his claim even more:

President Barack Obama emerges from a bruising midterm election with uncertain prospects for the next one in 2012, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.

Nearly half of his own base -- 45 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents -- want someone to challenge him for the Democratic nomination, according to the poll. . . .

His political problems start with his own base.

Among Democrats, 41 percent want someone to challenge Obama for the 2012 nomination, while 51 percent don't.

Moreover, a majority of Democratic-leaning independents, 56 percent, want him challenged, while 33 percent don't.

Among pro-Democratic voters who want him challenged: pluralities of women, voters younger than 45, and those without a college degree.

It's pretty difficult to maintain that Obama's critics lack credibility among his base with numbers like that.  Moreover, an expression of general "approval" for the President is not a sign someone is unsympathetic to criticisms or find them lacking credibility; one can agree with even intense criticisms of specific actions yet still "approve" overall.  Indeed, I suspect that many left-wing critics of the President would also, if asked, say they "somewhat approve" of Obama overall.  

There certainly are a lot of people who expend a lot of time and energy trying to prove that Obama's left-wing critics represent only a tiny, fringe minority.  The time and energy spent on that project rather clearly negates the authenticity of that ostensible belief.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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