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American Public Opinion on the Iraq War


Ole R. Holsti


Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011

Paperback. xii + 226 p. 23 tables and figures. ISBN 978-0472034802. $40.00


Reviewed by Eric J. Morgan

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay



During a conversation with Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary during the Clinton administration, concerning the importance of public opinion, President George W. Bush noted, “in this White House…we don’t poll on something as important as national security.” Bush had stated consistently during the 2000 presidential campaign that he would lead and make decisions, particularly on U.S. foreign policy, based on principles, not on the whims of the public [130]. Numerous presidents have made similar claims, though certainly public opinion has weighed heavily on various leaders in the U.S. from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton during times of foreign policy crises, from the First World War to Vietnam to Kosovo. In his rather succinct study, Ole R. Holsti endeavors to understand how Americans reacted to the Iraq War, and how, in turn, the Bush administration responded to public opinion in its ensuing policies. Ultimately Holsti concludes that a general public more educated on matters of foreign affairs would serve the nation well. Such a populace would “serve to reduce the possibility that the Iraq War—or any such future conflicts—will give rise to destructive myths about how the evil machinations of enemies at home undermined the achievement of American’s most ambitious goals” [182].

Three major questions drive Holsti’s text, which adds to a growing literature from Bethany Barratt, Adam J. Berinsky, Anthony R. Dimaggio, and others on public opinion and the Iraq War. First, Holsti asks, how did the American public react to the war? Second, what influence did public opinion have on the Bush administration? And, finally, what is the larger relationship between public opinion and foreign policy? To find answers to these questions, Holsti has scoured the public opinion data from a variety of polls, but admits the challenges of accurately assessing his second inquiry given the paucity of sources that suggest any direct influence between public opinion and policy. Here he relies mainly on anecdotes and conjecture, one of the weaker sections of his work.

After opening with a brief survey of U.S. relations with Iraq prior to the war, Holst delves into the details of public opinion, exploring the partisan nature of opinion towards wars throughout the 20th century, the place of the Iraq War in broader U.S. foreign policy, and the influence of public opinion on policymakers and foreign policy in general. Holsti shows successfully enough how public opinion generally followed the events on the ground in Iraq. The relatively easy capture of Baghdad and the ousting of the Baathist resulted in an initially strong approval of the war by the American public. In the first months of the war, seventy percent of Americans agreed that the United States had made the right decision in using military force against Iraq. But that support waned as the war dragged on and U.S. causalities increased. As it became increasingly clear that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction and the rationale for the invasion turned to the support of democracy in the Middle East, public approval for the war plummeted. By early 2005, approval fell below fifty percent, and continued to decrease. Holsti attempts to counter a prevailing myth that public opinion is fickle and ill informed. Instead, Holsti posits, “the evidence suggests that even in the face of vigorous public relations efforts by administration officials, public opinion, in the aggregate, seemed to reflect a sensible appraisal of events on the ground” [6]. In other words, the public’s opinions were never whimsical, and were grounded on measurable successes. There were no weapons of mass destruction and the war dragged on with seemingly no end; thus the American public grew skeptical.

The section on the influence of public opinion focuses on the Bush administration’s perception of the American media as hostile to its policies, which it blamed for the waning public support for the war. But, as Holsti shows, the media’s coverage of the war simply followed the trajectory of public opinion as the war dragged on and the conflict’s modus operandi changed. Indeed, Holsti is highly critical of the American media during the initial run up to and early months of the Iraq War, arguing that various media outlets should have been more inquisitive and skeptical, and instead they fell in line with the Bush administration’s policies.

One of the only real shortcomings with Holsti’s text—and it is not necessarily one of his own making—is that the story here is far too familiar. Policymakers decide on a course of action and consequently spin their webs, and the public (and in tandem the media) is initially entrapped in them. Patriotism is high, and the administration is trusted to forge ahead to protect the United States’ national interests. But as the conflict progresses and evolves, the public grows increasingly disenchanted with it, as occurred during the Vietnam War, and public opinion sours. The administration, looking for a scapegoat, blames the biased media, which has turned the American people against its government. We have witnessed such a storyline and paranoia before, particularly with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. Yet for all the familiarity, we never quite grasp why. Sadly, none of Holsti’s major characters, from Bush to Cheney to Rumsfeld to Powell, truly come alive in this study. Indeed, “public opinion” itself is an elusive character, as we never hear from individual citizens, rather from polls that create a stultifying and homogenizing effect on the image of the American public during the era of the Iraq War. While Holsti’s study is not meant to focus on the anti-war movement, it would have been helpful to hear from individual actors rather than mere surveys. For example, was support for the war higher amongst different groups, such as those of disparate socio-economic classes, educational levels, regions, or races? Holsti does not pursue this line of thought, which in turn makes the public a rather difficult entity to wrap one’s mind around. Still, this text is a fine resource that aggregates public opinion data on the Iraq War, and adds a concise contribution to the longstanding story of the disconnect between public opinion and the decisions of policymakers.


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