The unpopularity of war

With a new US strategy on Afghanistan set to be announced and a rising Australian death toll, three pollsters recently surveyed opinion on Australia’s troop deployment. Their results were consistently against expanding our troop commitment, and showed that about half of their respondents did not want our troops there at all.

ACNielsen found 51% of voters against the deployment, and two-thirds against sending more troops, with 30% in favour. Essential Media found 50% in favour of withdrawing and only 14% in favour of sending more troops. Newspoll also found two-thirds of its respondents against sending more troops and 28% in favour. The only real difference is opinon on sending more – this is probably a question effect, with Essential Media having an option of keeping the same number.

While these are negative results for the Afghanistan commitment, there is little evidence that recent Australian deaths have hardened opinion. A Lowy Institute poll last year found 56% against Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, up from 46% in 2007. And these figures are not radically different from those recorded on Iraq – for example in 2005 a small majority opposed Australia’s continuing involvement in Iraq.

Generally, it is a good thing that the Australian public is reluctant to support war. But these figures do also give weight to the concerns of conservative pessimists that Western publics have the lost the will to fight for anything, and not just wars without (perhaps) sufficiently clear links to immediate security. If these wars are unpopular with minimal casualties, how unpopular would they be with a large number of deaths?

10 Responses to “The unpopularity of war

  • 1
    Pedro S
    March 31st, 2009 21:27

    Alternatively the public suspects that wars fought in remote places on the other side of the world are more about imperialistic concerns than anything else.

    There are conservatives in the US, the types who read American Conservative, who are opposed to wars that are not directly linked to security.

    The public may be wise on this issue. The banner under which these wars were started, that of opposing a particular tactic, was so ridiculous that it’s not surprising that the public is skeptical.

    It would be a different thing if one country invaded another.

  • 2
    Mild Colonial Boy, Esq.
    March 31st, 2009 21:51

    There are some conservatives in Australia who oppose these wars too – because they are conservative. If you oppose social engineering in Australia then you will believe that attempts to socially engineer the Middle East and turn Mesopotamia into Massachusetts are inevitably going to fail. Democracy requires certain cultural attitudes that are just not present in Middle East. Democracy will fail there the same way it has failed in Africa and in the Pacific.

    To quote John C. Calhoun from The Conquest of Mexico (1848):

    “We make a great mistake, sir, when we suppose that all people are capable of self-government. We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake. None but people advanced to a very high state of moral and intellectual improvement are capable, in a civilized state, of maintaining free government; and amongst those who are so purified, very few, indeed, have had the good fortune of forming a constitution capable of endurance. It is a remarkable fact in the history of man, that scarcely ever have free popular institutions been formed by wisdom alone that have endured.

    It has been the work of fortunate circumstances, or a combination of circumstances—a succession of fortunate incidents of some kind—which give to any people a free government. It is a very difficult task to make a constitution to last, though it may be supposed by some that they can be made to order, and furnished at the shortest notice. Sir, this admirable Constitution of our own was the result of a fortunate combination of circumstances. It was superior to the wisdom of the men who made it. It was the force of circumstances which induced them to adopt most of its wise provisions. Well, sir, of the few nations who have the good fortune to adopt self-government, few have had the good fortune long to preserve that government; for it is harder to preserve than to form it. Few people, after years of prosperity, remember the tenure by which their liberty is held; and I fear, Senators, that is our own condition. I fear that we shall continue to involve ourselves until our own system becomes a ruin.”

  • 3
    conrad
    April 1st, 2009 06:44

    I agree with Pedro — if Australia had, say, 200 people in East Timor killed, I’m sure it would still have been more popular than Afghanistan (indeed I believe that East Timor helped the army recruit people, so people not only thought it was a good idea, but were willing to put their lives on the line for it. The second of these I consider very important, otherwise it is just old people sending others involuntarily to their deaths).
    .
    An additional thing is that I doubt people like wars which are going to be essentially impossible to win, as the Russians proved.

  • 4
    Pete
    April 1st, 2009 07:11

    Afghanistan has always had the taint of being a slightly dodgy war — triggered by a missed two week deadline to the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden after 911 (which looks especially ludicrous now in light of the US being there for years now and being unable to deliver him either).

    The main things stopping Afghanistan being the issue Iraq was were (a) the Taliban were genuinely a nasty piece of work (blowing up those historic giant Buddha statues has to be the biggest PR own goal in modern history), (b) people are now used to having their opinions completely ignored no matter how much they protest against a war anyway, and, (c) it has much more validity being an approved UN operation and the multination forces are much less likely to cock things up than the mostly-US forces in Iraq.

    Unfortunately, the place has been bombed back to the stone age by the Brits, then the Russians, and now the current. Pulling out isn’t likely to improve it much, and staying won’t do much good either.

  • 5
    johno
    April 1st, 2009 12:55

    Pete – you wrote ‘the Taliban were genuinely a nasty piece of work (blowing up those historic giant Buddha statues has to be the biggest PR own goal in modern history)’

    And Saddam wasn’t a genuinely nasty piece of work!!!! He was responsible for the death of millions.

    It’s a sad comment on the West that we seem to be more concerned about ancient statues being blown up, but not about the Kurds being gassed and slaughtered by Saddam.

  • 6
    Jack Strocchis
    April 1st, 2009 13:22

    Andrew Norton says:

    If these wars are unpopular with minimal casualties, how unpopular would they be with a large number of deaths?

    Afghanistan is a just war with low casualites fought by an all-volunteer army. You cant get it any easier for the general population than that.

    I expect that hostility to the war is largely on account of its association with GWB. Perhaps things will change with BHO.

    FWIW, I support the Afghan War as long as the US requires our support. We have a defence alliance with the US and we are obliged to pay our dues.

  • 7
    Pete
    April 1st, 2009 17:19

    johno@5: “And Saddam wasn’t a genuinely nasty piece of work!!!! He was responsible for the death of millions.”

    FWIW, the current estimates are less than 300K. These are currently dwarfed by the estimates of deaths caused by occupation Coalition forces, post-invasion, and there were some pretty damned high estimates of deaths attributed to sanctions too. Can’t see the US record being all that spotless either.

    It’s worth remembering: in the 1980s, Saddam was America’s nasty piece of work. Rumsfeld shook his hand as the Americans sold him WMD (which had well and truly expired by 2003). This was the same brains trust that approved CIA training for Osama bin Laden’s group to make life difficult for the Soviets in Afghanistan around the same time.

    By the 1990s and 2000s, Saddam’s Iraq was crippled by UN sanctions (against those non-existent WMD programs to replace US supplied stockpiles) and had been reduced to all but third world nation status by the time the Coalition forces invaded.

    When you fake up the evidence for a “just war” it loses popular support. Anyone surprised? When an unjust war, widely perceived to be really over multinational oil interests, begins to causes casualties, reports of war crimes and torture by Coalition forces, and there’s no clear exit strategy, it loses support. Anyone surprised by that either?

    Zimbabwe’s probably the best example of past US hypocrisy: trivial to depose Mugabe, it would have huge on-the-ground support, would be secretly cheered by all of its neighbours and would be a huge relief on humanitarian grounds. Unfortunately: no immediately exploitable resources for US multinational interests, no sale. North Korea’s another: a country that does have WMD capability (not one where the threat’s been made up), no sale. Northern African states with genocidal civil wars: no exploitable resources, no sale.

  • 8
    derrida derider
    April 1st, 2009 20:39

    Yep, Pedro is right. Politicians who think that it is somehow weakness to be reluctant to kill on demand distant strangers are profoundly wrong. And their attitude shows that they don’t see themselves as representatives but as rulers.

    Australians seem to have finally learned that “paying our dues” to Big Brother by getting involved in Big Brother’s wars on the other side of the world simply does not pay. As our military history illustrates.

    Big Brother pursues his own, not our, interest and will protect us according to whether it suits him or not at the time, gratitude not being a feature of international power relations. And anyway one decade’s Big Brother is another decade’s overstretched imperial basket case.

  • 9
    TerjeP
    April 1st, 2009 21:21

    Afghanistan has always had the taint of being a slightly dodgy war — triggered by a missed two week deadline to the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden after 911 (which looks especially ludicrous now in light of the US being there for years now and being unable to deliver him either).

    Pete kind of nails it. The point was to capture Osama and make an example of him. The war in Afghanistan seems to have mutated well beyond what it should have been about. And more and more it is looking like an extension of the war on drugs.

  • 10
    Jc
    April 1st, 2009 22:28

    But these figures do also give weight to the concerns of conservative pessimists that Western publics have the lost the will to fight for anything, and not just wars without (perhaps) sufficiently clear links to immediate security. If these wars are unpopular with minimal casualties, how unpopular would they be with a large number of deaths?

    I don’t really know about that Andrew. I think people are cottoning on to the idea that this is becoming an aimless war and that we’ve almost forgotten to the reason why we’re there in the first place.

    It basically seems unwinnable to me as we have no ability to cross the border and go where the real infestation is.

    It also looks totally half heated and disjointed and also appears there’s no one willing to formulate a clear set of defined objectives.

    This is the reason I think it’s becoming unpopular.