This is America’s third war in a Muslim country. It lacks a well-defined mission or a realistic end-game strategy. Even our top military and civilian personnel admit it isn’t in our nation’s vital interest and that Libya wasn’t a direct threat to our national security.
It is not surprising that, after months of near-endless deficit hysteria and politicians insisting we need to cut basic services meant to help Americans, the voters have concluded we don’t have a few hundred million to waste on more military adventurism.
Actually, I find it very surprising. He explains that the numbers who don't think it's worth it increases when the dollar cost of the war is included, which is not quite the same as being against it.
That there was some increase in support for the war after the US became directly involved is not surprising. Also not surprising is that the support was confused; the intervention had virtually no public campaign leading up to it to build support and Obama acted with minimal attention to Congressional support, much less authorization.
But still, the lack of public support in the initial weeks has been striking. I'm glad to see it. As I've said here many times already, I think the Libya War was and is a bad idea. I still hope the US will limit rather than expand our involvement, though it seems a pretty thin hope right now. But it's very different than the typical anthropological instinct for countries after a war starts. The most primitive group psychology urges us to rally around the flag, to circle the wagons, stand with the tribe, whatever metaphor you want to use for group solidarity.
Jonathan Bernstein discusses this question in Wag What Dog? Why Obama’s poll numbers didn’t get a boost from the Libya intervention.The New Republic 03/28/2011. He buys into an argument from Richard Brody that the only meaningful variable in whether a President gets strong or not-so-strong support for a way is the level of criticism from the opposition party. It doesn't convince me. Bernstein cites the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster as an instance of the public rallying around the President. But John Kennedy got blasted by his critics and the Republicans still bitch and moan about it to this day!
I actually think it's hard for standard public opinion polling to get the variables at work on this question. But the relatively tepid enthusiasm the American public is showing for the Libya War certainly doesn't fit into the argument that many Republicans and American military theorists have embraced that the number of American casualties is effectively the only things that affect the public's support of a war. The more casualties, the less support. This conclusion rests heavily on a flawed analysis by John Mueller in War, Presidents and Public Opinion (1973). Even if Richard Brody's analysis also sounds dubious, at least it provides some a challenge to Mueller's own monocausal explanation of public support for wars. Not having dug through the polling data in detail myself, I would suggest that settling for a single cause for public support of war is itself a problem - even with the usual academic qualifiers to suggest that they aren't quite saying that.
I think what we're seeing is a partial rally-round-the-flag effect which has been heavily mitigated by, yes, more than one major element:
Obama has done a lousy job selling the war. His temperament orients him more toward bring-us-together speeches with soaring rhetoric. Unlike the Republicans who in practice now consider patriotism equivalent to supporting the Republican Party, Obama hasn't been willing to indulge in jingo rhetoric to any notable degree.
Part of the widespread assumption that avoiding American casualties is the only meaningful factor in keeping public and Congressional support for a war is that air power gives the US a way to wage war with minimal American casualties. Obama has taken this a further step and has tried to pretend this isn't a war or even a protracted military operation or even one that the United States is heavily involved in. On the one hand, this has caused confusion in the public about just what the US is up to in Libya, a confusion that our broken TV news is scarcely competent to clarify, much less willing to do so.
On the other hand, the reporting on the war quickly available to Americans isn't strictly limited to American TV, even though that's where most people get their news. The New York Times and even the Washington Post, have been reporting about the involvement on the ground of CIA and Special Forces, along with British, French and German media and, a major player now, Aljazeera English. As David Rieff observes in Just Like BushThe New Republic 04/01/2011:
... from President Obama’s televised address on the evening of March 29, in which he claimed that the intervention in Libya was not about regime change, to the Reuters story revealing that he had signed an order allowing covert U.S. operations in Libya at least a week before the speech, and possibly longer, took—what?—24 hours.
Yes, President Obama now has his very own "credibility gap," no longer just restricted to people who take Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck seriously as sources of information and leadership.
John Mueller's theory notwithstanding, the American public is also tired of war. Not so actively opposed as one might wish to see in an engaged democratic citizenry. But despite the breakdown in quality of our national media, both print and TV, ordinary people still understand that war is a bad thing. This makes the Libya War and harder sell. And it also makes people more receptive to critical commentary on it.
While the overall balance of opinion about the Libyan air strikes has remained stable, the issue is eliciting a decidedly partisan reaction for the first time. Over just the past week, Republican opposition to the air strikes has grown substantially – 41% now say it was the wrong decision, up from 29% a week ago.
By contrast, Democratic support for the airstrikes has increased – 59% now say it was the right decision, up from 49% last week. As a result, while Republicans were at least as supportive of the decision to take military action in Libya a week ago, there is now a substantial divide along partisan lines.
I'm not sure if the poll gets at particular Republican twists on this war. The Republicans are more willing to criticize Democratic President's war than Democrats are a Republican President's. But Republican criticism typically runs along the lines of: the President isn't bombing enough, he isn't escalating fast enough, he's not being tough enough. Back during the Vietnam War, which heavily influenced today's Republican culture war mythology, it was common for people to say, "we never should have been there in the first place, but now that we're there we should go ahead and win it." That kind of sentiment counts as discontent with the war, but probably not as opposition.
On an issue not directly related to the Libya War, "just 39% say helping to protect Israel should be a very important policy goal for the United States." Now that's a surprising result!
Obama and his advisers apparently hope they can keep the Libya War under the radar of most public attention and concern. But the way things are going, I wonder if there's no something to what David Bromwich suggested last week, that Obama may have gotten conned by someone (CIA? military advisers? humanitarian hawks?) into thinking that a little bombing and a few CIA operatives and Special Forces on the ground could bring about regime change in Tripoli quick and easy, and with the American role largely kept quiet. This may turn out to be an Administration screw-up in more ways than we currently know.