Sixteen years after the beginning of the Iraq War, American public support for the war remains a puzzle. Why would the public, scarred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and overwhelmingly supportive of sending troops to Afghanistan to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and fight terrorism,[1] be willing to use military force on a different country, one not directly involved in attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon? The 9/11 attacks psychologically shook the public[2] and reshaped politics and society in the U.S., perhaps no more so than by involving the U.S. in two overseas wars that continue today. American support for wars is generally contingent[3]; Americans are more supportive of war when the war is expected to be short with few casualties, when military force is multilateral, and when the aim is military restraint rather than humanitarian. In times of crisis, the public does “rally around the flag,” increasing their support for the president and giving him more room to maneuver on foreign policy, an area where presidents already have an advantage.[4] Americans may be supportive of realist foreign policy,[5] but even if we allow for the framing of the war in Iraq as being in part of the War on Terror[6] and in the U.S. national interest George W. Bush administrations, we cannot fully explain why the public was supportive of the war as early as January 2002, as the authors document (3).

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THIS IS AMERICA... WHERE PUBLIC OPINION IS THE BASIS OF NATIONAL POLICY.During his campaign, Donald Trump made a number of bombastic assertions. For students of international law, the declaration that he would authorize the use of torture was among the more alarming, so there were signs of hope when he took office and appeared to backpedal. Soon after winning the election, President Trump sat down with the New York Times and implied that the winds of public opinion might cause him to shift his position on torture. While James Mattis, his Defense Secretary, had persuaded him that torture was not “useful,” Trump concluded that his decision would depend on whether “Americans feel strongly about bringing back waterboarding and other tactics,” and if so, “I would be guided by that.”[1]

 

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