Lately, elites from across the political spectrum have been calling on President Bush to level with the American people about the status of the war in Iraq. That's all well and good. But I'm sick of the pro-war fantasy that doing so will change public opinion. It won't.
On Sunday's "Meet the Press," Tim Russert asked Sen. John Warner this question, and Warner bought right into the unstated premise:
RUSSERT: Should the president go before the American people with a map of Iraq and say, "Let me explain to you what is going on in the war. This area's secure. This area is difficult. This area we had captured but now the terrorists have gotten it back"? Take people through it in a very honest, straightforward way, a status report, an update.
WARNER: Tim, I'm old enough. I served in the last year of World War II in the Navy. Franklin D. Roosevelt did just exactly that. In his fireside talks, he talked with the people, he did just that. I think it would be to Bush's advantage. It would bring him closer to the people, dispel some of this concern that understandably our people have about the loss of life and limb, the enormous cost of this war to the American public, and we've got to stay firm for the next six months. It is a critical period, as Joe and I agree, in this Iraqi situation to restore full sovereignty in that country and that enables them to have their own armed forces to maintain their sovereignty.
And today Andrew Sullivan featured an email expressing similar sentiments:
Imagine how much public opinion could be shaped and how much criticism could be defused if he simply addresses the American people to tell us what 'the course' that we must supposedly 'stay' is. What IS the mission? How many Iraqi battalions being independent and battle-ready will it take before we can at least begin to draw down? When can we expect this to occur? What is he doing to draw the Sunnis more into the political process and away from the insurgents? What is he doing with neighboring nations like Iran to stop their meddling and to seek their help in securing the borders? There are countless other questions – the answers of which could be used to explain in detail our progress, our plan, and a clear direction for America in the Middle East.
But when he is silent and hiding away from his critics, it’s only reasonable for people to begin to assume that he has no progress to report, no plan, and no direction. It would be sad if the hard work of people like Gen. Casey and Zalmay is all for naught because their boss was too much of a fool to explain the rather significant benefits of what they're now doing in Iraq.
The idea that people's opinions about the war will suddenly change if Bush "levels" with the public is mostly nonsense. Dramatic presidential speeches on well-known issues rarely move poll numbers. Presidents can strategically appeal to public opinion when it is already in their favor, but actual persuasion is far more difficult (references: On Deaf Ears, Politicians Don't Pander, Who Leads Whom?). As a result, it's unlikely that the White House will be able to change the minds of the growing majority of Americans who think the war was a mistake.