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Bush Needs War — FAST

by Robert Brent Toplin on Feb 24, 2003

Robert Brent Toplin

Although many critics of immediate war with Iraq are requesting that UN weapons inspectors be given months or even a year to complete further investigations in that country, President George W. Bush appears eager for quick military action. His resistance to a delay springs from more than just worries about conducting U.S. military operations in a desert during the heat of summer. Bush is mindful of growing difficulties with public opinion and an ailing economy, problems that could soon make war with Iraq politically unworkable. 

A crescendo of protests against war and disturbing news about a flagging economy are undermining public support for quick military action in Iraq. Bush’s difficulties are beginning to look like those of President Lyndon B. Johnson during the years of America’s involvement Vietnam. Bush’s problems, though, are taking shape much more quickly than in the 1960s because of advances in technology. 

Back in the Sixties, anti-war activists staged large-scale protest rallies from 1967 to the early 1970s, two or more years after the escalation of U.S. combat in Vietnam. Protest movements took time to gain momentum. There were relatively few public outlets at the time for discussion of political issues. When American military action expanded in Vietnam in 1965, the three major television networks devoted only a few minutes each day to national and international news. 

In contrast, today Americans encounter an abundance of questions about war on network and cable TV stations, talk radio, and the Internet. Combat has not even started, yet Bush is up against a well-informed and increasingly critical public.

Huge anti-war rallies held in American and Europeans cities on February 14 gave the Bush Administration hints of a troublesome future. Critics of the Administration’s policy coordinated marches that brought millions to the streets of New York, London, Paris, Rome, and other cities. In the modern age of mass communications, protesters can mobilize much more rapidly than in the comparably antiquated conditions of the 1960s. 

That mobilization is contributing to shifts in public opinion that could soon limit the President’s choices. A recent New York Times/CBS poll indicated that 59% of the American respondents favored giving the UN weapons inspectors more time to complete their investigations before an act of war. The poll also showed President Bush’s overall approval rating had dropped 10 points in just one month, and 44% disapproved of his overall management of foreign policy. 

If the President agrees to delay an attack on Iraq for six months or a year so that UN inspectors can expand their investigations, he could easily face overwhelming American and international condemnation. Even if Bush acts now, he will be taking military action in a political environment that is rapidly becoming hostile toward his policies. 

Economic pressures are also motivating President Bush to plunge quickly into war. A much-delayed decision for military action could sap more energy from the economy and heighten the concerns of an apprehensive public.

In the 1960s the economic consequences of large-scale military involvement in Southeast Asia took time to build. Problems with inflation and unemployment did not grow to disturbing proportions until the late 1960s and early 1970s. By then, Americans had learned that they could not have both guns and butter. 

The economic impact of the Iraq crisis has taken effect much more rapidly than in the days of U.S. engagement in Vietnam. Inflation is not yet an issue, because the United States and the world have been in a deflationary environment over several years. Specific inflation regarding petroleum is, however, a fast-growing problem. From the end of 2001 to the fall of 2002, when President Bush began rattling his saber in the direction of Saddam Hussein, oil prices shot up 46%. They surged again in the past few weeks with the growing international fears of an imminent outbreak of war. 

American and international stock markets have also taken a beating because of the prospects for conflict in the Middle East. This volatility was particularly evident when prospects for peace improved. On February 13th, for example, a report from the chief UN inspector offered a glimmer of hope that war with Iraq might not be necessary, at least for the immediate weeks ahead. Reacting to the news, Wall Street investors overcame their jitters and sent the Dow Jones surging 159 points for the day. 

These developments are pressing the Bush Administration to take quick action. With war talk hurting the economy and public resistance to the bombing and invasion of Iraq growing at home and abroad, there seems little time left to launch an attack. 

For these reasons, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will try to initiate military operations within weeks. If they hesitate, the anti-war protesters marching in city streets around the world may yet carry the day.


Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.