Defining Success in the War on Terrorism

Defining Success in the War on Terrorism

In pursuing its war on terrorism, the Bush administration faces daunting military and diplomatic challenges. But need it also worry about mobilizing public support? With the latest polls showing the public giving the president 90 percent approval ratings and endorsing the use of force at the same level, could the White House possibly hope for any more backing from the American people?

President Bush seems to think so. Every speech he gives appears to be primarily concerned with shoring up public opinion, warning us about the difficulties ahead and purposefully praising Americans for their "patience and resolve." The administration understands a basic truth about leading a democracy in war: Public support must never be taken for granted.

Even in allegedly "easy-to-support" wars, like World War II, political leaders have found it necessary to adjust the military tempo to boost public morale. All the more so in the current campaign, where the course is uncertain and the prospects for immediate success are bleak. Ironically, the initial wave of solidarity behind Bush actually intensifies concern, because there is no way the president can hold on to stratospheric approval ratings. As his support returns to more realistic levels, the headlines could become "Bush Approval Plummets." Implicit message: "Bush Is Losing the War."

Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the publi...

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...mas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.

President Bush has repeatedly said this war will be long and we should get on with our lives. In other words, the terrorists started Cold War II, not World War III. The president must stir national vigilance well beyond the levels of post-Cold War complacency, but he can't have the entire country on a permanent high war footing.

Yet precisely because the war will be long, it is that much harder to get on with our lives without seeing something that indicates we have started to win. For that we will need to see demonstrable progress toward the three clear goals outlined above. If it looks like America is winning, the president will have all the support he needs to make the victory complete. Without evidence of progress, however, even the rock-solid support he enjoys today could erode significantly.

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