PRINT April 1991


the Management of Consent

SINCE GEORGE WASHINGTON STRUGGLED to keep the fledgling republic neutral in the British-led war to crush the French Revolution, presidents have believed that they could protect the nation only by insulating foreign policy from public passion or by mobilizing public passion. Presidents see what Walter Lippman called “the manufacture of consent” as absolutely essential to the conduct of diplomacy. Thus national security is exempt from the sort of political scrutiny to which domestic policy is normally subject. In the matter of war and peace presidents ask to be trusted, and by and large they are.

The view of public opinion that has prevailed within the foreign-policy establishment during the 20th century is that because Americans are so woefully ignorant of history and geography, foreign-policy issues, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once put it, must be made “clearer than truth.” Exaggeration, hucksterism, and even deception are necessary tools for “educating” the people to their “world responsibilities.” Unless citizens are frightened, prodded, or shamed into supporting an activist foreign policy their isolationist predilections will prevail.

Leaders unencumbered by democratic practice, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, can make rational calculations of the national interest, but the public tends “to obey its feelings.” The American people, like most people, do not favor shedding blood or paying taxes for war unless the conflict appears unavoidable. Because of the shifting and sometimes unpredictable public mood, de Tocqueville’s view that democracy is a distinct handicap “in the control of society’s foreign affairs” has been widely shared. Acheson, the architect of postwar U.S. foreign policy, once wrote that the “limitation imposed by democratic political practices makes it difficult to conduct our affairs in the national interest,” and on another occasion he made the point more bluntly: if you did what the people wanted in foreign policy, he insisted, “You’d go wrong every time.” In periods of high international tension, issues of foreign relations arouse more powerful emotions than domestic issues. Indeed, long before Machiavelli advised princes to use wars to divert attention from difficult domestic problems, kings had become expert in this tactic.

The movement to war in the Persian Gulf was a supremely successful exercise in the management of wartime public opinion, perhaps the most successful in our history. As I write, George Bush’s approval ratings are hovering around 80 percent, and he is riding the wave of patriotism generated by Operation Desert Storm. Like all presidents leading the nation against a foreign foe, Bush can appear above politics, at least for the moment. His popularity, which had fallen in the wake of discouraging news about domestic problems—the budget deficit, the savings and loan scandal, the galloping crime rate—shot up thirty points when he put on his Commander in Chief’s hat and drew a line in the Arabian desert. Almost overnight his personal prestige rose and with it his electoral prospects in 1992.

In the age of mass communication the symbolic importance of foreign policy in winning elections and in building presidential power is much greater than it used to be. Bush obviously enjoys playing the game of nations more than worrying about domestic policy, and he recently said as much to an interviewer. No wonder. Foreign policy is largely about images, impressions, and that favorite word in the lexicon of national security, perceptions. The great issues of war and peace make a compelling story, as good writers dating back to Homer’s time know. In our day they make compelling television, and when the story stops being compelling, as is now the case with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, and Panama, it disappears. On the bridge of an aircraft carrier or at the remains of the Berlin Wall an American politician can look presidential. How does he effect a take-charge look in a schoolhouse or a failing bank?

Still, the sustained popularity of Bush’s Persian Gulf policy is remarkable given the fact that before the conflict itself the nation was deeply divided about going to war. In December 1990, there was stronger antiwar sentiment on the eve of war than at any time since World War II. The political and military establishment was clearly split. The vote in the Senate to authorize the president to use force in the Middle East was extremely close. (When President Lyndon Johnson put the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution before Congress 27 years ago, asking in effect for a blank check for a war in Indo-china, only two senators, Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, dissented. Their detractors challenged their patriotism, and even their admirers wrote them off as quixotic.)

Seven former secretaries of defense and two recently retired chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly advised Congress to continue the sanctions and wait to go to war. The testimony of these senior generals suggested that what the Reagan administration called the “Vietnam syndrome” still worried the Pentagon. The military services remember the years of public anger after the Vietnam defeat that isolated the armed forces and cut them off from the civil society. The Weinberger Doctrine—a statement by Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, that the military will not fight a war the American people do not support—reflected what the generals had learned from Vietnam. If politicians could not make a convincing case for the war, the generals would resist fighting it. For politicians of the Reagan era, however, the Vietnam Syndrome appeared to be a serious inhibition on American diplomacy. If diplomacy ultimately rests on the use of force and public opinion inhibits the use of force, how could the United States play its superpower role? Ronald Reagan tried all through his eight years to enlist public support for U.S.-managed military operations, first in El Salvador and then in Nicaragua. He largely failed in both cases, and his failure led to the covert operations that were partially exposed in the Iran-contra investigation.

Why did a highly political administration proceed with the war, and how has its management of opinion been so successful?

The political generals who crafted the gulf operation, having the public reaction to the invasions of Grenada and Panama and the bombing of Libya in mind, understood the minimum political conditions necessary for an American war to attract stable popular support: it must involve few American casualties and disappear promptly from the front pages. The public will applaud “surgical strikes” making use of high-technology weaponry if it can be demonstrated that the target deserves what it is getting. It must be seen as a dangerous source of “instability”—normally because it is in the hands of a madman or criminal like Qaddafi or Noriega—and it must possess mineral riches or “strategic” real estate. Managua is only a short drive from Texas, as Reagan used to say, but few Americans cared. They didn’t want to go there, and they didn’t believe the Nicaraguans were coming. But distant Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were another story. Anyone who has ever waited at a gas line or paid $1.50 a gallon knew that they are strategic.

Unlike the Vietnam War, a war in the gulf ran no risk of a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Communism was in ruins and the Soviet Union was dissolving. Two years ago, a military operation on the scale of Desert Storm on the southern flank of the Soviet Union would have been unthinkable. The conflict in the gulf was the first post–cold war war. For the first time in more than forty years, communism, real, imagined, or feigned, was not the target of an American military intervention. Indeed, the Soviet Union became a nervous ally in a multilateral operation organized by the president of the United States.

Saddam Hussein was a central-casting villain who played his role brilliantly to suit his enemies. By his rhetoric and brutal acts he lent credibility to the president’s characterization of him as a space-age Hitler. He was the perfect model of the new military threat facing the United States in the post–cold war world—overarmed, overambitious, a secular leader who knew how to appeal to Islamic fundamentalists, an assassin, a torturer with nuclear ambitions and a weakness for poison gas.

The president invited the antiwar movement to march under the slogan “No Blood for Oil” by justifying this sudden and unprecedented use of American military power as necessary for “the preservation of the American way of life”—that is, the right of citizens to spend the day on the freeway and not in lines at the gas station. But it was not a war for oil. It was a war to assert American power in the world and to redefine the role of the military in American foreign policy and in American culture. President Bush told a business audience that American leadership in fighting the gulf war would result in “vastly restored credibility” for the United States and that this would translate into more “harmonious” economic relations with our increasingly powerful industrial competitors. But the president bet that the general public was readier to spend a little blood on oil and “jobs” than on vague and controversial notions of a “new world order.”

Three further elements of the opinion-management campaign proved highly successful. First, the president asked Congress for what amounted to a declaration of war. Since Vietnam, the military have been wary of undeclared wars. The last time Congress had met to declare war was after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Bush delayed his request, however, until more than 500,000 troops were already in place, when a negative vote was less a rejection of going to war than a quibble over the date. At any rate, even a divided vote of confidence strengthened the president’s hand.

The second element in building public support was the use of the United Nations. This unique symbol of international legitimacy was invoked repeatedly before the war began, but it largely disappeared from view once hostilities commenced. Desert Storm was not a United Nations campaign as specified in the U.N. Charter but a U.S.-organized and -managed operation supported by an ad hoc coalition with the blessing of the United Nations. But that was enough to give the impression that Iraq, unlike Vietnam, was virtually isolated, and that world opinion was with the men and women of Desert Storm.

The third element was the effective press management. The censorship in the gulf was unprecedented. Never had there been so many real-time messages from the front, and never had the messages been so shaped and controlled by managers of the war. When the young marine so touchingly confessed his fear, mingled with pride and determination to do his duty, a public affairs officer sat just off camera. Operation Desert Storm was fought in the traditional American fashion by overwhelming the enemy with a massive use of lethal force. The battle for public opinion was fought with a barrage of official information. As the war ended, the dissenters appeared irrelevant and bad sports. Because the Pentagon won a big war, the first such victory since World War II, and fought a 100-hour ground war with fewer American deaths by gunfire than occur on U.S. city streets on a typical weekend, the ghost of Vietnam has been exorcised. Faith in what military power can do has been strengthened, and in the midst of celebration few give any thoughts to the moral and political failure this war represents. Most of the prominent generals and officials who so forcefully opposed the war as unnecessary and unwise before it began are silent, perhaps biding their time until the sort of peace this war will bring becomes clearer.

Richard Barnet is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the author most recently of The Rockets’ Red Glare: War, Politics, and the American Presidency.