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

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
Public Opinion's Influence
on Gulf War Policy

INTRODUCTION

The effect that public attitudes had upon the Bush administration during the Persian Gulf crisis exemplifies the influence of public opinion on foreign policy in the postVietnam era. Bush and his advisers had decided on their general plan for war without specific reference to polls. The importance of public opinion was not in forming the idea of war but rather the way in which this ultimate solution was implemented. The concern of the Bush administration about the way that the American public would react to the possibility of war influenced its statement of aims in the Gulf, the diplomatic actions it took, and even the way in which the war was finally fought. Public opinion was a force that said not what to do but how to do it. As Bush and his advisers tried to shape public opinion through its foreign policy, public opinion actually shaped that foreign policy. Public opinion did not specifically determine the destination of the policy, but it had a lot to do with how the administration got there.

The influence of public opinion on U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf was substantial at each of the three benchmarks. The first benchmark, immediately after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, was President George Bush's decision to deploy troops to the Gulf in Operation Desert Shield. Sending troops into Saudi Arabia, in August and September of 1990, was the point at which Americans rapidly became interested in the Gulf crisis, and began expressing opinions about the prospect of military involvement. Prior to this, most Americans knew little of the region or of U.S. relations with Iraq. Faced with the knowledge that the American public would not tolerate another long and extended war like Vietnam, Bush realized the importance of quick and decisive action. During August and September 1990, the top policymakers formulated a potential long-term strategy, including a military intervention to remove Hussein's troops from Kuwait. At the time, though, there was little public discussion of a possible war with Iraq.

Bush's commitment to send reinforcements to the Gulf in November 1990, was the second major benchmark. Though he made the decision immediately before the mid-term elections, he announced it on November 8, three days after the vote. This was an escalation of American involvement in the Gulf, and a clear preparation for a greater American military intervention. The decision is crucial for understanding the

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