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Review by Alan Kotok

Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons from the Iraq War, Edited by Richard Sobel, Peter Furia, and Bethany Barratt, Potomac Books: Dulles, VA, ISBN-13: 978-1-59797-492-9, 2012, 322 pp. $60.00 (hardcover), $29.95 (paperback)

The world rarely speaks in unison on policy issues, but public opinion outside the U.S. was almost universally opposed to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The negative spillover from the Iraq invasion affected broader attitudes towards U.S. global leadership for the next several years, presenting challenges for American diplomacy worldwide, both public and traditional.

A new book — edited by Richard Sobel of Northwestern University, Peter Furia at University of Virginia, and Roosevelt University’s Bethany Barratt — presents essays by social scientists on the ground in 12 democracies that examine how opinions about the war in Iraq affected policies of those governments. While the book’s contributors look for empirical connections between public opinion and government actions and consequences, public diplomacy practitioners can find lessons in the the essays as well.

The book covers six countries that took part in the invasion of Iraq or the occupation that followed, and six countries that chose not to take part:

Participants: United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Poland, Netherlands, and Japan

Non-participants: Germany, France, Mexico, India, Turkey, and Canada

For each country, the essay authors addressed five questions:

— Did the government’s initial decision about whether or not to participate in the Iraq War reflect societal opinions?

— How did domestic institutional constraints and electoral politics affect the way in which governments presented their decisions to domestic audiences?

— How, if at all, has public opinion about Iraq itself changed?

— How, if at all, has the country’s policy in regard to Iraq itself changed?

— Has a government’s policy decisions about the Iraq War had any positive or negative electoral consequences?

Fortunately, the authors of each chapter used the five questions as guidelines and not as a cookie-cutter template, which gives each essay a unique quality. In general, those countries taking part in the coalition forces made for more interesting stories, since the dynamics between public opinion and government policies or electoral consequences were more complex and sometimes had less predictable outcomes.

Common to most essays is the largely negative public reaction in 2002 and early 2003 to the prospect of a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq, even in the U.K. and Poland, two countries that took part in the invasion; Australian and American public opinion was initially more supportive. Publics in the Netherlands and Japan also opposed the invasion, but those countries sent forces as part of the post-invasion peacekeeping. In the U.S., majorities responding to poll questions about the Iraq war supported the invasion and occupation through 2005, but turned negative starting in 2006.

The essay’s authors show that opinions about Iraq were often more complex than revealed in a single poll question, however. While the publics in the six non-participating countries largely opposed the invasion, for example, majorities of Germans and Canadians in 2002 also supported their countries taking part in the Afghanistan coalition.

In addition, Saddam Hussein had few fans outside Iraq. In 2002, a plurality (45%) of Turks said Saddam Hussein should be removed, while nearly as many (40%) agreed he should be disarmed but not removed. In May 2005, 45 percent of Indians said the world was a safer place with Saddam removed from power, and in November 2005 48 percent agreed the U.S. made the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, even though large majorities opposed the invasion or India’s participation in it.

Another factor cited in several essays is the importance of U.N. authorization for military action against Saddam Hussein, especially if the surveys framed the question in comparison to unilateral U.S. action. In the coalition countries Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands, support for the prospect of action against Iraq increased if authorized by the U.N. Even among the non-participants, majorities in Germany and Canada approved of action against Iraq, if it was part of a U.N. effort, but only about three in 10 Indians approved of a U.N.-led operation.

As the invasion turned into an occupation, the authors found governments in the five coalition countries outside the U.S. were able to carry out the largely unpopular actions because of historical deference by legislatures to executive authority for foreign or defense issues, relatively few casualties, and a need to maintain good relations with the U.S. And as the occupation went on, Iraq became less of a key public issue, as coalition countries withdrew their forces and economic matters took center stage.

One essay that stands out is the discussion of Turkey by Özgür Özdamar and Zeynep Taydas. To the Turks, the war in Iraq was not half a world away, but right next door, and where issues of caring for refugees crossing the border and Kurdish nationalism hit home. The 86 percent of Turks opposing a U.S. invasion in early 2003 exceeded levels in both France and Germany, with majorities also opposing use of Turkish bases for the invasion, the so-called northern option. Nonetheless, the Ecevit government negotiated a draft agreement with the U.S. for the use of Turkish bases. The normally deferential Turkish parliament, however, vetoed the agreement; an action which polls showed had wide approval.

In the book’s conclusion, editors Peter Furia and Bethany Barratt supplement the country chapters with a test of empirical evidence between the extent of public support for the Iraq War and two different outcomes: the decision to take part or endorse the Iraq operation, and the probability of negative electoral consequences. Furia and Barratt constructed indexes of participation and electoral consequences; then correlated the indexes with results of a question on a Gallup International survey of 36 countries in January 2003. Their analysis yielded mixed results, however, and they had to massage the data, by limiting the countries included in the indexes to democracies.

Perhaps a more productive method would be to focus the analysis on countries with a rich source of polling data, and going back over time to cover other conflicts, such as Vietnam and the first Gulf War. The analysts could then construct Bayesian models to give the statistics more predictive power. Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog in the New York Times, often uses this approach.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Alan Kotok
Alan Kotok

Alan Kotok is editor and publisher of the Science Business blog, and editor of the Web site of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association. Kotok started his career with U.S. Information Agency’s research and technology offices, and later became an executive with two technology industry associations and managing editor of Science magazine’s careers unit. During that time he started two companies and wrote three books on technology and business.

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