For a war of more than a brief duration, several theories have been put forth. One is that the public looks to elites for cues about how to react. The elite, right now, clearly believe that the war in Afghanistan is going poorly; ergo, the public's growing opposition is just a reflection. Another theory holds that the public is capable of assessing risks and benefits and does so fairly independently of the elite. Mueller has written that, as the human costs of war inevitably accumulate, the public will inevitably come to oppose a war whose duration exceeds expectations. There is some evidence that support for a war is linked to -- and the direction here isn't clear -- presidential approval more than it is to casualty levels or an appraisal of whether the war is going well or not. Peter Feaver, a Duke professor who served in the Bush administration, believes that "support for war is a function of two attitudes: the
retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the
first place, and the prospective attitude of whether the war will be
In his mind, the Obama administration isn't sending the right cues. If Obama doesn't say that he thinks the war will be won -- only that it must be fought -- he is betraying a doubt that public opinion will come to reflect -- and has come to reflect. In other words -- is something in America's interest if Americans don't think it's in their interest?
In Iraq, it took about two and a half years before the public became convinced that the war in Iraq wasn't going well, and it took about another year before a majority started advocating for U.S. troops to withdraw. For President Bush, the war became a proxy for his presidency. It is not clear whether President Obama faces the same calcification challenge as President Bush. That is, even though public opinion right now on Afghanistan closely approximates public opinion on Iraq when opposition to the Bush administration's theory of international relations hardened, there is no reason to simply assume that, a year into office, President Obama will face the same type of pressure. Obama's challenge is different. Because of 9/11 and a concerted PR case for war, the Bush had Americans' hearts and minds on Iraq, and then lost them when the 9/11 rationale didn't check, the WMDs weren't found, and casualties began to mount. So far as hearts and minds go on Afghanistan, Obama has never acquired them, so he has less to lose. And it may well be that the less Americans are directly engaged in a war, the less they care about it -- even as they insist that they do care about it.
Some on the right believe that Americans don't like to lose wars, period, and that they'll punish President Obama for withdrawing too early from a conflict to save face. It may be better to borrow from Dwight D. Eisenhower's example, here. He was rewarded, in the presidential campaign of 1952, for promising to end the sputtering Korean War, which did not necessarily mean that he promised to win it. Indeed, over the objections of his generals and his CIA director, he signed the truce, even though, to that time, America had never actually lost a war. For that he was called -- yes -- an appeaser. Eisenhower had credentials that Obama lacks -- five stars being the main one -- and so the historical analogy doesn't quite hold up here. But by the time Eisenhower came to office, the war was not popular. He did not try to win it; he ended it, and was rewarded politically. Afghanistan and Korea share several features, too: both are/were attrition wars, guerrilla conflicts, where a nation-state with undefined goals is trying to adjust to an enemy whose principal means of fighting is terrorism.