Annapolis Institute Overview


We need leaders with backbone

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 15, 1990

Fickle polls. A panicky Congress. Here we go again.

Polls released this week show approval of President Bush’s conduct in the Mideast crisis dropping more than 30 points – from 82% to 51% approval rating since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

As every pollster knows, public opinion is most likely to change dramatically on issues that people know the least about, and particularly in foreign affairs a finding firmly established more than 25 years ago in Hadley Cantril’sHow Nations See Each Other.

The extreme volatility of public opinion on foreign policy issues was dramatically demonstrated in the mid-1970s when the Nixon administration extended diplomatic recognition to Communist China. Almost overnight, U.S. public opinion reversed itself from 75% opposing recognition to 75% favoring it.

The ability of political leaders to influence public opinion is sharply constrained in areas where the public has direct experience, lots of information and deeply held convictions, for example, most domestic issues.

On the other hand, political leaders have enormous influence on public opinion in areas where information and direct experience are limited, as in many foreign policy questions.

This means that today we can expect wide shifts in opinion in response to specific events in the Mideast crisis.

If hostages are killed, there could be a demand to avenge their deaths. If leaders of Congress spend a week bashing the president’s policy, we may expect the president’s approval rating to sink.

National policies driven by public-opinion polls are a curse of our time, expecially in the foreign policy arena. What we need – and sorely lack – are leaders driven by core beliefs whose postures are shaped by strong backbones.

The great post-World War II achievements of President Truman and a strong, bipartisan congressional leadership – including the Marshall Plan, aid to Greece and Turkey, and establishment of NATO – lacked broad public support. But gutsy leaders, people with vision, build enough public support to get them through Congress.

Today Congress is attacking the president largely on issues of process – which branch of the government has the authority to commit U.S. troops to combat.

Lost in this babble are the most of the central and substantive questions.

If Congress is going to pull the rug out from under the president and our troops in the Mideast, it has an obligation to address the larger issues of national security: the worthiness of U.S. and allied objectives, the impact of letting U.S. and allied objectives, the Impact of letting Iraq control one-fifth of the oil produced in the world today, the security and well-being of industrial democracies, and the role of U.S. power in the world’s ongoing struggle for order and justice.

When Congress hijacked the president on the budget and then gave us a month of bickering, it only affected our wealth. In the Mideast, a new round of congressional self-indulgence may cost American lives. Congress should be careful. It may be held accountable.

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