The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

IV
THE PERSIAN GULF CASE
A RETURN TO INTERVENTIONISM?

THE GULF WAR OF THE EARLY 1990S PRESENTS THE NEXT EXAMPLE OF PUBLIC OPINion's relationship with foreign intervention policy. The case study consists of two parts. The first discusses the background of the war, focusing on the chain of events, the Bush administration's policy, and public opinion in 1990 and 1991. This sets the stage for the second part on how public opinion affected the decisions of policymakers themselves.

Focusing on President George Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and their reactions to three benchmarks of the crisis, this case study provides insight into the way public opinion affected intervention policy. The benchmarks are the initial decision to deploy troops to the Persian Gulf in August 1990, the decision to reinforce the contingent with combat troops capable of offensive action around the November elections, and the decision to go to war in January of 1991. In what was the biggest commitment of U.S. military power since Vietnam, public opinion had a great influence on the way the administration presented the crisis in 1990–91, the diplomatic strategy the administration used leading up to the invasion, and the way the resulting coalition ultimately fought the war itself.

As the events in the Persian Gulf unfolded in late 1990 and early 1991, the American people's response was one not of overwhelming decisiveness but of unsure skepticism. Following the initial escalation the public was divided until immediately before the invasion. A lack of consensus over issues such as the necessity, likely outcome, and costs of a war with Iraq marked the period leading up to the actual fighting in January of 1991. The administration and the public both displayed remnants of the Vietnam syndrome.

The Bush administration's struggle to overcome this doubt in the American people presents a clear example of public opinion's effect upon foreign policy. The statements of the men who formed foreign policy during the three benchmark periods reflect public attitudes. Their decisions took into account the importance of maintaining the backing of the American people. This understanding had a direct bearing on the way in which crisis policy played out. Realizing the need for garnering public support, the Bush administration tailored its strategy, both in the presentation of the crisis and in the actual plan of the war, to respond to the desires of the public. It was

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