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Was effective opposition to the Iraq War impossible?

September 17, 2005

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a bit.

Ronald Krebs, in an exchange with Chaim Kauffman in International Security (“Selling the Market Short? The Marketplace of Ideas and the Iraq War,” Vol. 29, No. 4, Spring 2005, pp. 196–207), argues that once the Bush Administration decided to go to war with Iraq, there was no way the opposition could win.

Krebs’ argument is related to a broader theory about what he and The Duck’s own Patrick Jackson call “rhetorical coercion,” which means exactly what it sounds like.

What set of conditions made it relatively easy for the Bush administration to shut down effective political opposition to the Iraq War? According to Krebs, the answer is relatively straightforward: September 11, 2001.

The Bush administration exploited September 11 to advance its favored policy, but this was not some minor event blown out of proportion. September 11 shattered a sense of American invulnerability that had survived even the dark days of the Cold War, and it reshaped the rhetorical space within which political disputes would be waged.

Krebs is more specific, however. September 11 had some very particular effects on the public’s receptivity to the Bush Administration’s arguments:

The psychology of terrorism helps explain how September 11 reconfigured the rhetorical playing field and primed the American public for the Bush administration’s case for war. First, the availability heuristic suggests that, in the face of uncertainty, people assess probabilities by searching for analogies. Recent terrorist events, particularly those on a large scale, are unusually salient and thus lead to exaggerated risk perceptions.

Those of you who frequent IR blogs will recognize this argument.

Second, terrorism is, by its very nature, hard to control, and successful mass casualty terrorist attacks on U.S. soil were nearly unknown. People are particularly afraid of such risks and thus are particularly prone to initiate them. Third, when circumstances call forth strong emotions such as fear, people tend to overestimate risk (including the risk of future attack): they consequently focus less on probabilities than on possibilities. Intense fear leads people to favor policies that minimize risk (and further feelings of fear) and thus to oppose military action overseas, but only a small proportion of Americans felt fear after September 11 so deeply as to overwhelm the countervailing effects of increased appraisal of risk. In short, Americans focused on what was possible, not what was probable, in the wake of September 11. The administration’s success had little to do with the presidential structure of American democracy and far more to do with the ramifications of the attacks. The horrific vision of an Iraqi WMD strike on the U.S. mainland or of the Iraqi regime sharing these weapons with al-Qaida was, even by the administration’s own reckoning, a low-probability outcome—but it was one that Americans were, after September 11, prepared to find plausible.

How did the Administration’s enframing of the war shut down the Democratic opposition?

In the post–September 11 rhetorical space, the Democratic politicians who might normally have led the opposition to the invasion generally held their tongues. This was less because they had been persuaded of the Bush administration’s logic and factual claims than because September 11 had deprived them of winning arguments, of socially sustainable avenues of reply…. Opponents might have argued that Saddam Hussein was but a minor figure with small-time aspirations, but that flew in the face of long-standing U.S. policy with bipartisan support presuming that Hussein remained a substantial threat. Some maintained that Hussein was deterrable, but the purported link to al-Qaida and the testimony of Pollack combined to undercut that argument. Some challenged the administration’s claims that Hussein was actively pursuing WMD, especially nuclear weapons, but after September 11 the possibility that he was doing so and would use them against the United States or its allies trumped the greater probability that he was not and would not. Others argued that the administration should instead concentrate on ensuring the safety of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union or on rooting out al-Qaida, but at the time, when the administration forecast that the invading U.S. forces would be welcomed by liberated Iraqis, these hardly seemed like mutually exclusive courses of action. Recognizing that their justifications for opposing the war were unlikely to gain rhetorical traction, most Democrats who might otherwise have opposed the administration jumped on the bandwagon. They were the victims of successful rhetorical coercion.

In stressing the psychological and political impact of September 11, Krebs provides an analytically informed way of understanding current developments. Many have noted that as the raw shock and emotion of September 11 continues to fade from the consciousness of the general public, so has support for the Iraq War and for the Administration (hence, the desire of Bush’s speech writers to remind us about terrorism at every possible opportunity).

Krebs’ argument, if correct, has important implications for the anti-War left. It suggests that there was almost nothing the Democrats could have done to stop the war and, by extension, implies that anti-War Democrats in particular should stop criticizing their leadership for its actions during 2002-2003.

So how persuasive is he? Does he correctly assess why the Bush Administration steamrolled the Democrats and the American people with a less than honest assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? His central argument holds up pretty well, but it does leave me with some concerns.

First, Krebs uses different arguments for why the general public and Democratic officials capitulated. This isn’t completely unjustified. Information is costly. Most people (political bloggers and their readers being an important exception) have more immediate concerns than devoting time to becoming extremely knowledgeable about the details of policy debates. Policy elites – or at least their staffs – tend to be much better informed.

Still, there’s a bit of a disconnect here. I don’t doubt that many Democrats may have held their tongues because they couldn’t find “winning arguments.” But it is also possible that September 11 effected some prominent Democrats in a way similar to how it shaped public receptivity to the Bush Administration’s arguments. The former may not have “bought” most of the specifics Bush was peddling, but they had to worry about the possibility that he was right… they also thought in terms of the “possible” rather than the “probable.”

Second, Krebs’ argument is about “conditions of possibility” for successful political argument. As with all such analysis, there’s a real danger of circular reasoning: the Bush administration successfully shut down opposition to the war, therefore no such effective opposition was possible. This might be the case, but it also may be that opponents of the War could have mounted more effective opposition if they’d made better choices, been better organized, or developed a cluster of arguments involving various novel “frames” (in the sociological, not the Lakoffian sense) that we, as analysts, can’t see or anticipate.

To be fair, the piece is a short commentary; Krebs admits he doesn’t have space to develop his analysis. I suspect there’s a longer article gestating in his very active mind. Yet I’m concerned that Krebs focuses too much on what might be called “policy wonk” arguments against the Iraq War, even as he argues (at least implicitly) that the success of the Bush administration’s propaganda came from the way it appealed to the strong fears and emotions of the American people.

I have to wonder if there might have been less “wonkish” appeals that, together with policy arguments about the true nature of threat posed by Hussein to the United States (which was very small), could have gained more traction with the American public and made them less supportive of going to war.

There are other issues, but Krebs is right on the big one: political scientists need to pay more attention to the role of emotions, psychology, and the nature of public discourse in explaining outcomes like the Iraq War. We place too much emphasis on theories that assume the basic rationality of people, both in their choices and their evaluation of evidence.

[Full disclosure: I went to graduate school with Ron, and I think he’s one of the sharpest minds of our generation in IR. Chaim’s pretty darn smart as well, but he graduated from Columbia a bit before my time.]

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.