Balancing leadership and public opinion

Is it possible for a democracy to win a war against insurgent or terrorist forces?

Debate over the American-led war in Iraq has shifted recently, even among its supporters. Many of the conflict's staunchest defenders have lately expressed apprehensions about losing - not on the battlefield, but in the domestic arena. Columnist Mark Steyn wrote that "the quagmire isn't in Iraq but at home," while Michael Ledeen refers to American Middle East policy as trending toward "preemptive surrender." These worries about the steadfastness of the home front touch on an important and recurring theme of the new kind of warfare: Is it even possible for a democracy to win a war against insurgent or terrorist forces? Many opponents of the campaign in Iraq compare it to the Vietnam War, asserting that both conflicts have in common inherent unwinnability. Such comparisons may have merit, but not the way critics intend. In early 1968, an absolute majority of Americans felt that the Vietnam War was being properly managed, and even that it should be escalated. Despite the fact that three years of war had cost the lives of more than 15,000 Americans, there was twice as much support for the war in early 1968 as there was opposition to it. The January 1968 Tet Offensive, in which communist forces launched a surprise attack against numerous American and South Vietnamese positions, was an almost unmitigated military failure for the attackers - but it was a stunning success in the shock it delivered to the American media. After Tet, fewer battles were reported as victories, and the Johnson administration's statements about the war were treated with increased skepticism. With media coverage becoming increasingly negative, in February 1968 CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite condemned the prospects for victory and announced to his millions of viewers that "we are mired in stalemate." President Johnson was deeply affected by the statement, and famously remarked: "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." In March of that year, convinced he had lost public support, Johnson announced his decision not to seek a second term - and also his decision to end the bombing of North Vietnam. In that speech, he used the word "victory" only twice - both in reference to North Vietnam's military aspirations. Johnson made no mention whatsoever of the possibility of an American victory. AND YET contrary to conventional wisdom, this was not a case of public opinion provoking a change in policy, but the opposite. According to polling data, the Tet Offensive at first actually increased public support for escalating the war, and even Cronkite's newscast did not have an immediate effect on public opinion. True, Johnson's approval ratings fell. But the fact that support for escalating the war was far higher than support for the president suggests that it was the president's weak leadership - not the perception that the U.S. could not win - that led to his downfall. Between the Tet Offensive and the announcement that he would not seek re-election two months later, Johnson rarely addressed the nation, virtually giving up any attempt to make the case for resolutely continuing to fight. SO WE must look elsewhere for an example of how a democracy can withstand an insurgency in a protracted conflict, and indeed we can find it in the British treatment of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The final and most violent outbreak of violence in the IRA's long campaign to unify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland started in 1969, when the Provisional IRA instigated a terrorist campaign against British forces and Protestants. Public opinion and political considerations prevented the British from responding with the extreme tactics they had used in the colonies, such as burning down villages, transferring their residents, or imposing wholesale administrative detention. By the late 1980s, the separatists had achieved a number of resounding successes, including the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten, a bombing in Brighton that narrowly missed the entire British government, several bombings in central London, and mortars fired at the prime minister's residence. The toll in death and destruction from more than two decades of conflict was severe: From 1972 to 1974, 297 members of the security forces and 597 civilians were killed. Between March 1973 and February 1977, 276 IRA bombs exploded in Britain and 14 shootings were carried out by Republican organizations. The attacks continued relentlessly into the 1980s, with the IRA responsible for no fewer than 521 bombings between 1984 and 1986. In the early 1990s the organization blew up the Baltic Exchange and the NatWest Bank tower, causing massive economic damage. At the height of the violence, it seemed to many that the Irish separatists were likely to win concessions. Early in the conflict, some high-level members of the British government advocated acquiescence to the IRA. There could very well have been a British surrender to IRA demands. BUT BY the late 1980s, British security forces had honed their methods and were hitting the IRA hard, and the British government never gave any indication that it would consider surrender. One Irish negotiator admitted: "I see absolutely no evidence from our dealings with the British government … that it was materially swayed by bombs in the city of London." Even when a majority of British citizens were prepared to give up Northern Ireland, successive British governments refused to yield, and the British public did not force them to do so. In the end, it was the IRA that agreed to a cease-fire in 1994, abandoning armed struggle. The lessons for democracies from these two insurgent wars are clear: On the one hand, the public's endurance and loyalty to competent leadership is much greater than is commonly believed. On the other hand, in order to break a democratic country through a war of attrition, all that is necessary is to influence a small, concentrated group - that is, its leadership. If the leadership decides that a war is not worth the cost or the trouble, the public will usually follow its lead. But if both the political leadership is convinced of the rightness and necessity of a war, it is extremely difficult even for a determined guerrilla force to withstand the wrath of a democratic country. The staying power of such countries lies in their commitment to democratic values and their will to protect them. If a democratic society believes in the rightness and necessity of its struggle, and if its leaders offer stable, honest, and resolute leadership, the public will be willing to bear almost any burden. In the end, at the most critical junctions the citizenry are not the weak link in a democratic country, but its greatest resource. The writer is an associate fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem. A lengthier version of this article appears in the forthcoming issue of Azure.