On issues of War and Peace, Public Opinion has Proven an Unreliable Guide

Much of the recent debate over the Bush administration’s Iraq policy has centered on two foolish ideas. The first is that the goal of American foreign policy should be to make certain the United States is “liked” by as many other countries as possible, particularly at that great high school of the world, the United Nations. The second is that policy makers should look to public opinion in the United States and abroad as the compass by which to make wise decisions on vital matters of war and peace.

This theory of international relations as a dinner party where national interests should be subordinated to good manners is disturbingly ubiquitous among the chattering class. It is also very dangerous in our age of stat-sponsored mass terror. Public opinion, while always sanctified when we talk about our great democracy, is often dangerously naive and ill-informed. History shows us that public opinion in times of grave national crisis often puts great pressure on leaders to do exactly the wrong thing.

Consider: In the fall of 1939 adolf Hitler had already started the Second World War. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been conquered. Poland was falling to German armies. Britain and France had just declared war.

Against this, Gallup measured American public opinion on the European war. perhaps unsurprisingly, 96 percent of Americans opposed joining the war against Hitler. But when asked if the United States should stay out of the war, even if that meant fascist Germany would conquer the democracies of England and France, 79 percent of Americans still said America should avoid the war.

This was public opinion in the United States after a decade of Hitler’s ranting, re-arming, and marching across his neighbors’ borders. Even as late as 1941, with France defeated and England alone, a poll showed 79 percent of Americans still opposed involvement in the war.

European public opinion was no wiser. Shortly after chamberlain won peace in our time at Munich, only 39 percent of British public opinion opposed his policies. After losing millions in the slaughtering fields of the First World War, it is no surprise that France and England craved peace during the 1930s frequently terrified readers with stories of vast air arm adas that would bomb crowded cities with poison gas. That public opinion would cling to peace at nearly any cost is easily understandable, and arguably commendable. No civilized society will ever embrace the horror of war if given any other option, even options that are illusions. But it is the duty of leaders to see through the illusions.

Hitler made his riskiest initial move in March 1936 by remilitarizing the Rhineland, and thereby dramatically repudiating the Treaty of Versailles. France’s vastly superior army of the time could easily have rolled into the Ruhrvalley, upholding the treaty that ended World War I and stopping Hitler’s ambitions by disarming his regime. Reacting to Hitler’s gamble, France’s caretaker premier Albert Sarraut made a snarling radio speech, weighed military action, and consulted his British allies in the Baldwin government, who told the French that Britain could not “accept the risk of war” and urged diplomatic action within the League of Nations.

Facing elections in May and fearing a backlash from a powerful “pacifist tornado,” the Sarraut cabinet quickly rejected military action. “If we had declared a general mobilization two months before the elections,” wrote Sarraut’s air minister in 1944, “we would have been swept out of parliament by the voters, if it did not happen beforehand through a revolution in the streets.” France, the dominant land power in Europe during the 1930s, did nothing.

Public opinion in most Western democracies today is pushing leaders against the use of military force. Only in the United States does public opinion support military action in Iraq and that support is far from overwhelming. What has changed dramatically in the decades since World War II is the cost of a miscalculation. the great oceans that protected American from the blitzkriegs of 1939 and 1940 offer no protection against a crude atomic weapon in a cargo container. Acting too late against a deadly enemy would now be catastrophic. National leaders who face atomic terrorists cannot afford the luxury of hindsight.

Presidents often succeed in everyday politics by deftly following public opinion. witness the recession-proof vitality of the political polling industry. A time comes, however, when protecting the public is far more important then catering to it. The highest duty of elected leaders at moments of critical national interest is to resist the impulses of the public mob with it’s many illusions, regardless of whether the mob is rushing toward angry violence or a naive peace. George W. Bush and Tony Blair are wise and brave to understand this.