Some military interventions are more popular than others
By Fabrizio Coticchia
I have been part of a panel called “Military Intervention and Public Opinion: Does the Public Matter?” at the ISA Annual Convention (Toronto, 26-29 March). The (lively) discussion aimed at answering such intricate question from different perspectives. Dissimilar views remained at the end of the day. However, also looking at the literature no consensus emerges on this issue.
According to some scholars, public opinion is almost irrelevant. For instance, Sarah Kreps illustrates how Western public opinion did not influence the government decisions and alliance cohesion in the case of the military operation in Afghanistan. As stated by Kreps: “Despite the unpopularity of the war, leaders have largely bucked public opinion and neither reduced nor withdrawn troops from NATO-led operations in Afghanistan”. Elite consensus seems to be “the reason why leaders are not running for the exits in Afghanistan when their publics would prefer that they do”. The article shows that operating through a formal institution (such as NATO) creates systemic incentives for sustained international cooperation.
Other scholars, while confirming the crucial role played by elite consensus, point out the impact of public opinion. Looking at the Italian mission in Iraq, Jason Davidson highlights the “importance of the electoral motive to explain the timing and nature of the government’s decisions” (indeed, the Italian public was very critical towards “Ancient Babylon”). After the war in Vietnam, several empirical studies have portrayed the public as rational, better informed, not so easy to manipulate and more influential than expected. Even according to the Weinberger doctrine (1984) the support of public is an indispensable condition for undertaking a military operation abroad. In a sense, the massive communication efforts by the governments in the case of war (remember G.W. Bush?) would be totally useless in the case of irrelevance of the mass public.
Thus, probably the most fascinating question is another: What are the explaining variables that guarantee a solid support for military interventions? Also in this case, the answers are more than the conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination. Vital national interests at the stake, multilateral framework of the operation, aims of the mission (e.g., foreign policy restraints instead of regime changes) are the first possible explaining factors.
A significant number of scholars focus on the “perceived relative value” of the intervention, emphasizing how public opinion compares benefits (success) and costs (casualties) related to the engagement in a conflict. Others examine the role played by elites in shaping this “perceived relative value”.
Existing analyses have mainly illustrated government’s communications in case of war, but the features of the public discourse still deserve further consideration. Thus, a growing attention has been devoted to the concept of “strategic narratives”, defined by Freedman as: “compelling storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn“. Ringsmose and Børgesen adopted “strategic narratives” to better understand the ways through which governments build a convincing rationale for a military operation abroad.
The paper I’ve presented at the ISA (as my most recent book) assumes the same perspective. I believe that the role played by political leaders in shaping Italian public attitudes towards Italian missions abroad has been essential.
Paraphrasing The Smiths, why are some narratives more effective than others? The paper answers the question providing an original framework of “successful strategic narratives” for the case of Italian missions in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya (don’t’ worry, I have analyzed Afghanistan in other work…). Preliminary (very preliminary…) results show that strategic narrative proved to be “successful” in the Italian case when the following elements are present: bipartisan consensus over the central values of the narrative (peace, multilateralism and humanitarianism), limited degree of violence on the ground and absence of effective counter-narratives. A strategic narrative that binds all these aspects, through a prudent and low profile communication strategy, will have significant chances to provide support towards Italian military interventions abroad. The coming Italian operations (hopefully very far away) will verify my assumptions on “successful strategic narratives”.
(No more space in this post for the – useful – critiques provided by the discussant!)