Popularity Politics

[this column was printed in the Columbia Spectator today]
This column will not defend the Bush administration if its members indeed lied in order to convince the American people to approve of the war in Iraq. That said, the debate over the administration’s overselling the case of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction is missing the point. In the end, what President Bush said to justify the war is of less consequence than the fact that he felt pressured to say anything at all.

Whether or not evidence will prove that intelligence reports about Iraq were correct, Bush certainly did have reason to worry about WMDs. As The Economist wrote on May 29, “Conspiracy theorists should remember that much of the evidence against Mr[.] Hussein came not from the American and British governments or their spies, but from two unimpeachable sources. They were the United Nations weapons inspectors, and Mr[.] Hussein himself.” Bush could potentially have led the world to war after the U.N. Security Council’s resolution 1441, which reiterated that Iraq would “face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations,” but instead Bush decided to wait.
No action was taken after the 30-day deadline given to Saddam passed, as members of the Council debated the definition of “serious consequences.” The more significant reason for America’s delay, and the incentive for the Bush administration to allegedly mislead the American public with erroneous information, was the administration’s need for broad popular approval. No matter how great the danger was, it seemed as if the administration would not go to war if the move would hurt the President’s popularity rating.
As Fareed Zakaria notes in The Future of Freedom, America is suffering from an epidemic of polls. Practically no decision is made by politicians with out first consulting the polls, reducing American politics to little more than a permanent campaign. Yes, the people should be consulted, but in many cases, the people do not have enough information to make sound decisions, and in other times, painful decisions need to be made so that the nation will benefit in the long run.
So might have been the case with Iraq. In such a case, if the administration was sure of its intelligence information and saw the unseating of Saddam as a strategic must for the long-term benefit of the United States, the President should have used the War Powers Act to carry out the mission.
The framers of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 realized that not all decisions can be brought into the public forum. Some decisions, they reasoned, needed to be made quickly and resolutely by the Commander-in-Chief, upon whose shoulders would lie the responsibility for leading the country into war.
If the Bush administration decided that reports saying that Iraq had WMDs made convincing arguments, and that inaction might endanger the people of the United States or the nation’s interests, the administration should have taken it upon itself to decide to take action regardless of the electoral consequences. Precedents abound, including the actions led by President Clinton in Bosnia, where world opinion and national opinion were initially against American intervention. But the Bush administration did not dare make its decision without public approval–it deferred responsibility, passing the buck to the electorate.
By waiting for popular opinion to shift towards the war, the administration built itself a back door of accountability, enabling it to later say, “But the people wanted us to do it.” Thus it deferred its accountability to popular opinion—an aggregate of personal opinions of people who can be misled because they simply do not, nor could they ever, have enough information to make the painful decisions necessary to steer a country to the right course of action.
But government, not the electorate, needs to be held accountable in order for the political system to properly function. The U.S. system of representative democracy was geared to protect the republic from populism. Legislative and executive terms were made long enough to give representatives security in making sometimes unpopular, but necessary, decisions without fear of immediate retribution. This system has broken down.
In California, Governor Gray Davis stands to be unseated only a year after being elected to a second term. Whether Davis would have succeeded in helping California is unclear, but the initiative will ensure that any subsequent governor will shy away from making decisions that may be painful in the short run but beneficial in the long run.
As long as American politics is enslaved to the polls, future administrations will also be drawn into the contest for popular opinion, and be too afraid to make decisions that may cause their approval ratings to drop. Yes, a commission must get to the bottom of the Bush administration’s claims for going to war with Iraq. Another must address the intelligence failures that preceded Sept. 11. But until politicians are willing to make difficult decisions without worrying about their approval ratings, we will never be rid of scandals of spin.


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