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The Impact Of Public Opinion On U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam

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Since the Vietnam War, the public's opinion has played major roles in how policymakers operate. Their opinions may not always support to choices which are best for the country, however they are still factored into the decision making. Richard Sobel discusses several cases on how the public's attitudes have affected policymaker's decisions in his book, "The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam."

During the Persian Gulf War, public opinion ultimately shaped policy. How the policy was attained, not the goals of the policy were shaped by the public opinion. The Persian Gulf War would be the largest use of the U.S. military since Vietnam, thus causing the Bush administration to consider how the public would react when they presented the crisis. "A lack of consensus over issues such as the necessity, likely outcome, and cost of the war marked the period leading up to the actual fighting in January of 1991." The struggle within the Bush administration to overcome the doubt which the American people had shows how public opinion clearly affects foreign policy. When creating foreign policy, policymakers were sure to maintain the backing of the American people. "As Bush and his advisers tried to shape public opinion through it's foreign policy, public opinion actually shaped foreign policy. Public opinion did not specifically determine the destination of the policy, but it had a lot to do with how the administration got there."

Saddam Hussein sent troops into Kuwait on August 2, overtaking it and renaming it Kuwait City, Iraq's 19th province. Bush sent 50,000 troops to the Gulf on August 8 and ordered a naval blockade on August 12. This increased the support from the American people to 80 percent. On August 22, Iraq announced that they were going to use hostages as "human shields." President Bush convinced Saudi Arabia to allow US troops to be stationed on their soil, thus drawing "a line in the sand," preventing more aggression. President Bush's implementation of the invasion increased his approval rating from 60 percent to 76 percent in just one month. By November, the majority of the American people, 70 percent felt that the US should wait before going to war. On October 20, President Bush stated his 1988 campaign pledge, "no new taxes." People were no longer interested in the Gulf a few months after Bush's speech, but were becoming more interested in domestic policy.

The American public was not very supportive of the war near the end, but Bush continued on with it. He had to reassure people that it wouldn't be Vietnam. The Bush administration stated that the reason for fighting the war was the need for a "New World Order" in the aftermath of the Cold war. The U.S. wanted to get rid of Iraq's nuclear capabilities. The media played a major role in the unfolding of the Persian Gulf War. The media didn't give much attention to the negative parts of the war, such as the protests, and praised the military.

During all three of the benchmarks in the Persian Gulf War, public opinion was very influential. The first benchmark was President Bush's decision to send troops to the Gulf in Operation Desert Shield. This was the beginning of a rapid increase in interest by the American people. Secretary of State, James Baker III made statements stating the effective US diplomacy would depend on the American public to be the foundation. Baker believed that "the most powerful policy consisted of decisions made in accordance with high public support." He stated in his memoirs that US involvement in international issues was intended for an increase in public support domestically. In regards to American actions in the Gulf, he stated that "We have a responsibility to the American people that a decade from now, their sons and daughters will not be put in jeopardy because we failed to work toward long run solutions to the problem in the Gulf." In the beginning, Secretary of Defense, Richard Cheney, didn't follow public opinion, but on military strategy.

The second benchmark was Bush's commitment to send reinforcements to the Gulf. Bush, although making the decision during mid-election, waited to announce it until after the vote. In an attempt at obtaining public support Baker emphasized the dangers of interaction. He focused on Congress as the representative for the public, hence his sensitivity to their concerns. A clear indication that his policymaking was influenced by public opinion was state in a response to how the administration reacted following a congressional outcry. "It took two months of intensive damage control, a United Nations resolution, and a final diplomatic effort by the President, cumulating in direct talks between me and the Iraqi Foreign Minister, to persuade legislators to support the option of US military intervention." Cheney's first indication of the influence public opinion had been in response to why General Schwarzkoph force was insufficient. He responded by saying that unlike during Vietnam, the President would deploy reserves to make sure that our military would be fighting with support they both needed and planned on having. Bush wanted to give the military everything they needed rather than deny opposition. They were trying to avoid war, but gave military support.

The decision to finally go to war was the third benchmark. This was when they needed to convince the American public to support a full force war, the first one since Vietnam. As a whole, the country accepted the decision to go to war. Bush felt that he had the support needed but knew that if the war was long, he would lose that support. Bush felt so confident with the support of the American people that he used it as leverage against Saddam Hussein, to warn him of the strength of the country. Secretary of State Baker stated that "If we are to have any chance of success, I must go to



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