Public Opinion and Bulgaria's Involvement in the Iraq War

By Vassilev, Rossen | East European Quarterly, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Public Opinion and Bulgaria's Involvement in the Iraq War


Vassilev, Rossen, East European Quarterly


Introduction

For some writers, it is almost axiomatic that few politicians in democratic countries today are prepared openly to challenge the dictates of public opinion, even if they consider the latter to be uninformed, unthinking, fickle, selfish, and based on "the passions of men" (to use Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous characterization of popular attitudes). Nor, for that matter, can elected officials in a democracy afford not to respond to widespread popular objection to a particular foreign policy, or at least take such objection into account in public debates, as well as in policy formation and implementation (see Everts 1983; Risse-Kappen 1991; Sobel and Shiraev 2003). According to this vox populi vox Dei view, "... there is substantial correspondence between policy and public opinion. Moreover, policymakers also tend not to act against an overwhelming public consensus" (Sobel and Shiraev 2003: 283).

Then there is the view that public opinion has little influence on the foreign policies of democratic societies (see Shapiro and Jacobs 1989; Page and Shapiro 1988; Nacos, Shapiro, and Isernia 2000; Holsti 1992; Holsti 1996). In modern democracies, public opinion has much less effect on foreign policy than on domestic issues. National leaders enjoy greater freedom to make decisions on foreign affairs, given their special need to act in a secretive way in order to function more effectively in the international arena, as well as the traditions of elitism and secret diplomacy that remove the foreign policy-making process from the constraints imposed on domestic policies.

Current research on public opinion in foreign and security policy provides a conditional model of public opinion, emphasizing elite manipulation of the public via framing, salience, and coalitional politics in determining the public's influence (Powlick and Katz 1998; Shapiro and Jacobs 2000). Political institutions, as well as historical, normative, cultural and other factors, have differing influences on this relationship (Risse-Kappen 1991; Nacos, Shapiro, and Isernia 2000; Sobel and Shiraev 2003). Some writers argue that the percentage of the public favoring a policy has an important influence on the latitude that policymakers have in ignoring public opinion (see Graham 1994).

In view of such ongoing debate on the role of public opinion in foreign policy, how did Bulgaria in the so-called "New Europe" become militarily involved in the Iraqi conflict in spite of public opposition at home, which has filtered into the mass media of the press, radio, television, and the Internet? How was this unpopular decision in the name of the war against international terrorism arrived at by the center-right government of former king Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whose party, the National Movement for Simeon the Second (NDSII), had unexpectedly won the 2001 parliamentary election and then ruled Bulgaria for the next four years?

Immediately before the invasion of Iraq, opinion polls showed that a majority of Bulgarians were opposed to participating in military operations in far-way Iraq, which, in their eyes, posed no threat to their national security. Despite public opposition at home, Bulgaria, a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council at that time, was one of only three Council members (the other two being the U.K. and Spain) to support unswervingly the U.S. hard-line stance on Iraq, and in July 2003 the Sofia government sent a "peacekeeping" force of 480 "Rangers" to help with the stabilization and reconstruction of that war-tom Arab country. Amid popular opposition to any Bulgarian military engagement abroad and with violent unrest continuing in Iraq, the Simeon government came under strong domestic pressure to bring the troops home before the June 2005 parliamentary elections. With opinion polls showing over 70 percent of Bulgarians in favor of immediate troop withdrawal, then Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski nevertheless declared that "I head a responsible national government that cannot abandon its coalition partners in Iraq and will not betray its Euro-Atlantic values" (quoted in Duma, March 12, 2005). …

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