Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Toll from Iraq Hits Home

(September 2005)

Citizens of our participatory self-government base our opinions on a number of factors, be it moral conviction, general philosophy, or rational self-interest. In terms of the war in Iraq, the debate has until now mostly consisted of the first two; e.g. chest-thumping nationalism versus doctrinaire pacifism, the evangelical fervor of neoconservatism versus the sober prudence of foreign policy realism. Though these conflicts are extremely important, the most important thing about seeing public opinion of the war through these lenses is that the vast majority of people do not. Unlike the classes who can afford to sit idle in their armchairs and pontificate about ideals and isms, most United States citizens have real jobs to do, families to care for, and enough personal problems to deal with that they simply did not care about a war which did not seem to have an adverse affect on their own well-being… until now.

According to the science of political economy, the informed voter is knowledgeable about his or her own needs and will support government policies which benefit themselves. And likewise, if every member of society were adequately educated and voted in every election for the candidate which promises to follow the course of action most narrowly tailored to their own self-interest, then government policies would follow the dictates of reason and fulfill the needs of the "median voter", that mythical individual who embodies the absolute center of public opinion. This median voter is the swing vote, the one in the equation of "50 percent plus one" who theoretically determines the actions of every re-election-minded public servant. Of course, the ideals of a perfectly rational electorate did not exist when Congress took up the issue of authorizing the invasion of Iraq less than a month before the 2002 elections, for only a handful of intelligence analysts and weapons inspectors knew anything at all about the raison d'être for this war: weapons of mass-destruction non-proliferation.

If only a well-informed electorate were able to have a say in whether Saddam Hussein's capacity to manufacture unconventional weaponry was so dangerous as to necessitate a pre-emptive military strike, then very few people would have been able to take part in this debate. Among those who would have been disqualified for ignorance include the 77 senators and 296 congressmen who authorized the president to "disarm" Saddam - even last year's Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards. Like a gambler at a poker table with a friend planted to read off his opponents' cards in code, the Bush administration national security team had access to asymmetrical information in regards to Iraq, for only the president and vice president were privy to certain intelligence briefings which evaluated the prospects of Iraq's WMD capabilities as "highly dubious" and that a guerilla insurgency could last for years after the downfall of the regime. If this information were publicly available at the time that the Iraq debate first came to Congress, it is hard to believe that the representatives of the American people's self-interest would have accepted the terms of the sale.

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The New Industrial State that the modern corporation does not necessarily supply wares in response to the natural demands of consumers; the firm of our times has so much power over market activity that it produces whatever is most profitable and then manufactures artificial demand for its new line of merchandise. Under the authority of the first president with an M.B.A., George W. Bush has been running the United States government in essentially the same manner as Galbraith's modern corporation, and the war in Iraq is the most convincing piece of evidence. There was always a small cadre of on the far right of the spectrum who wanted to march on to Baghdad since the first Gulf War, but the median voter of the American public never demanded an invasion of Iraq until President Bush sold it to him, using his bully pulpit to pitch this product which his state had already decided to be in its best geopolitical interests.

Though the median voter theorem is by definition only operational on Election Day, there are other tools available to surmise where exactly that all-powerful center of public opinion lies. According to a Zogby poll conducted in June of 2003, after the triumphant sacking of the Iraqi regime and toppling a statue of Saddam amidst cheering crowds, a peak of 75% of Americans approved of a war which seemed to be going rather successfully. But only one year later, after the news showcased the psychosexual nightmare of naked prisoners being strung with electrodes and sicked by dogs at Abu Ghraib, and the grisly image of mutilated corpses of American contractors being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, the realities of war hit home; a CBS poll from June of 2004 reported that 60% of Americans thought that the invasion of Iraq was not worth the cost. Still this data did not translate into electoral results, for despite the growing frustration with the war upon which he had based his presidency, Bush was re-elected by a healthy margin. Thus proves the failure of the theorem to predict election results, for the median voter is rationally concerned with many issues. Moreover, not everyone reacts to the same information rationally; in an age when every pack of Marlboro Reds warns its consumers that buying this product will greatly increase the risk of acquiring emphysema and cancer of the mouth, throat and lungs, there are still 47 million Americans who stubbornly cling to a habit that will almost certainly lead to their own death.

Up until the past few months, though enthusiasm for the status quo had certainly waned, very few people to the right of Dennis Kucinich were calling for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. There had been some significant antiwar demonstrations which shut down San Francisco during the initial invasion of Iraq and New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention, but the protestors were for the most part limited to the roughly 20 to 30 percent of the population which has always been opposed to the war. There was yet a mainstream movement against government actions on the other side of the world, because the distanced masses did not yet see this as a threat to their own health and safety.

Something shattered that notion this summer. First of all, the grieving mother of one of the 2,000 American casualties of this war drove to President Bush's ranch outside of Crawford, Texas to ask why her son had to die in Iraq. He could not give her a rational answer, because no such thing exists. To counter the political fallout from this sympathetic critic, Casey Shaheen's commander-in-chief who has never seen combat flew to the Utah Veterans of Foreign Wars convention to talk about how painful it is for veterans to live without a constitutional amendment against flag-burning, and then rehashed that old lie with the Idaho National Guard, "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." In his radio address, he provided horrifically circular logic as to why we must indefinitely prolong the occupation of Iraq which will accomplish nothing but more unnecessary casualties, "Now we must finish the task that our troops have given their lives for and honor their sacrifice by completing their mission." As Bush's approval ratings have dipped to an all-time low of 37%, to a level comparable to Lyndon Johnson's during the Tet Offensive, only the choir seems to have agreed.

Before the month was out, another lover of peace intervened in the war of hearts and minds: God. Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating natural disaster in this country's history, exposed undeniable truths about the war's toll on the civilian population of the United States. To afford the $200 billion which has been spent on the war in Iraq, White House Office of Management and Budget cut allocations for the upkeep of the levees by $5 billion. While poor, black residents of New Orleans were stranded on their roof-tops and crying for their government's help from the rising waters of Lake Pontchartrain, one-third of Louisiana's National Guard units were stationed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The American people apparently understand this connection; A CBS poll showed 69% of respondents believing that spending in Iraq is responsible for the reduction in spending on the levee system which allowed the flooding of New Orleans, and 57% thought that the fact that National Guard units were deployed in Iraq contributed to the slow response of the federal government to Hurricane Katrina.

Especially in response to President Bush's insistence that to fund the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast we must not raise taxes but instead trim wasteful spending from the federal budget, a war which costs upwards of $5 billion a month looks like an awfully good place to start. As the saying goes, you don't need to be an ichthyologist to understand that a fish stinks, and the median voter grasps quite well that his tax dollars' commitment to a stalemated campaign of guerilla warfare is at the expense of his own self-interest. For that reason, in September the New York Times reported that a solid majority of 52% of Americans support the immediate withdrawal of all United States troops from Iraq. Democratic and Republican Congressmen alike are now supporting a timetable for the Pentagon to do just that, and Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold has proposed December 31, 2006 as a target date for the last soldier to come home. The next round of national elections is still more than a year away, but the median voter has already spoken.

No comments: