Commentary: Support up in fighting allies

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  March 28, 2003 at 6:07 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 28 (UPI) -- While the White House trumpets the number of governments that at least nominally support the invasion of Iraq -- "over 50" according to an op-ed by national security adviser Condoleeza Rice in The Wall Street Journal -- public opinion worldwide remains acutely negative.

Good news for the administration, however, comes from the rise in popular support in the two other English-speaking nations that publicly have units fighting in Iraq. A rally-around-the-troops effect appears to be buoying hawkishness not just in the United States, but also in Britain and Australia.

This offers a lesson about the long-term relationship-building value to the United States of getting foreign countries not just to make positive statements about U.S.-led wars but to also put some of their soldiers' boots on the battlefield. Seeing television coverage of young people from one's own country fighting alongside Americans seems to foster martial enthusiasm and warm feelings for the United States.

A poll carried out from Monday to Wednesday of this week by Roy Morgan International found that Americans support their military's involvement 74 percent to 21.5 percent. Britons, who had been mostly opposed until very recently, now back their armed forces' participation 52.5 percent to 37 percent. Likewise, Australians now favor their going to war 50.5 percent to 46 percent.

"We Brits just like a good fight," chuckled Gordon Heald, managing director of one of the firms involved in conducting the poll, The Opinion Research Business. Heald pointed out to United Press International, "Among Europeans, only Norwegians are more likely than the British to tell pollsters that they would fight for their country."

Having your own troops in the war seems to matter emotionally, as seen in the contrary case of New Zealand, which is sitting out the conflict.

With no troops to rally around, New Zealanders are strongly opposed to getting involved. Although New Zealand is, on the world scale, culturally quite similar to England and Australia, only 26 percent want Kiwi forces to fight. According to the Roy Morgan poll, Prime Minister Helen Clark's stance against sending troops contributes to her 74 percent approval rating with her constituents. That's higher than what U.S. President George W. Bush (68 percent approval), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (53 percent), and Australian Prime Minister John Howard (56 percent) enjoy in their own respective countries.

Although the sample sizes in each country in this survey are moderately small (between 402 and 427), this study offers a useful "apples to apples" comparison across the four countries.

Leadership certainly matters -- citizens in these countries are following the direction set by their respective leaders -- but participation does, too.

Spain's Jose Maria Aznar has been such an outspoken advocate of the war that he was invited to participate at the recent Azores conference with Bush and Blair as part of a new Big Three. With no soldiers of their own to root for in the conflict, though, the Spanish people remain highly anti-American. According to a mid-March Pew Research Center poll, only 14 percent of Spaniards hold a favorable view of America, which is substantially below Britain's 48 percent or even France's 31 percent.

Some almost-forgotten history from the first Gulf War suggests the advantages to America of getting other countries' forces into the fight.

Although many Americans today deride the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," French President Francois Mitterand deployed troops in Saudi Arabia within weeks of Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Heald summarized differences in European public opinion two months later: "There were very interesting differences between the countries. (The people of) Britain and France, who made substantial contributions to the Gulf forces, claimed that they are doing this mainly as a matter of principle, with the main aim of restoring independence to Kuwait. In the case of France, Mitterand was particularly incensed when the French Embassy in Kuwait was raided by Iraq and this triggered his real commitment to Gulf forces."

In polling in October of 1990, Heald found that with French troops already on duty, 75 percent of the French supported the use of military force to free Kuwait, compared to 79 percent of Americans and 86 percent of Britons.

Further, 62 percent of the French favored having their own ground troops fight to liberate Kuwait. That was less than the 77 percent in Britain and 71 percent in the United States, but much more than elsewhere on the Continent. Other European countries were generally supportive of the idea of somebody fighting Saddam, but much less enthusiastic about doing it themselves. In the poll, 28 percent of Germans and 33 percent of both Spaniards and Italians wanted to see their own armies in combat in the Gulf.

The French public remained relatively hawkish. Their backing for having the French Army go to war dropped only from 62 percent to 58 percent by mid-December.

Remarkably, considering how unpopular George W. Bush is with the French today, his father George H.W. Bush was more popular for sending armed forces to defend Saudi Arabia in France (where his move enjoyed 73 percent approval) than he was in America (68 percent).

France eventually provided the third largest military force in Desert Storm. During the ground war, the French 6th Light Armored division did a much-praised job of protecting the left flank of the famous "left hook" of American heavy armor that raced around Iraqi lines.

In 1999, the Clinton administration arranged for the NATO alliance to attack Yugoslavia for attempting to violently put down an Albanian separatist revolt in its Kosovo province. This broad participation provided political cover for the governments involved. There were relatively few recriminations over the more troublesome aspects of the war, such as how the first night's bombing of Belgrade led to Serbia responding with a massive ethnic cleansing of Albanians, because most governments in Western Europe and North America were jointly implicated.

In fact, most recent references to that war seem to assume that NATO air strikes were a response to the Serbs kicking out hundreds of thousands of Albanians. This collective mis-recollection of a simple chronology that was universally reported less than four years ago is testament to the public relations value of making war as an alliance.

In contrast, the new war in Iraq will probably be remembered differently by the English-speaking peoples fighting it, who will mostly recall footage of their troops fighting bravely, and by the continental Europeans sitting it out, who are likely to remember al-Jazeera coverage of stray bombs killing Iraqi civilians and the like.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union 1991, Europeans had less incentive to continually modernize their militaries. It became apparent during the Kosovo air campaign that the United States had gotten so far ahead of its European allies that they could no longer coordinate well together. It was becoming simpler for the United States to take on the whole military burden itself.

After Sept. 11, 2001, NATO declared itself ready to fight in response to the terrorist attack on America. The Bush administration, however, decided that allies would slow down its assault on the Taliban government of Afghanistan, so the Europeans were not called upon by America to do much fighting alongside them.

Soon after this snub, the popularity of American policies began to decline to unprecedented levels. For example, a huge EOS Gallup Europe poll of more than 15,000 people in 30 European countries in late January of this year found that majorities of the citizens of every nation except Slovakia disagreed with the statement: "The United States should intervene militarily in Iraq even if the United Nations does not give its formal agreement."

Humphrey Taylor, head of Harris Interactive pollsters, noted "Eastern European countries feel somewhat more warmly toward the U.S." Still, the difference in popular attitudes between "Old Europe" and "New Europe" are not huge. As Taylor noted acerbically, "They are all old."

In current European Union countries, according to the Pew poll, 84 percent opposed the United States acting without U.N. permission. In the 13 countries that are candidates for EU membership, 70 percent were against it.

While the old saying "If you want to have something done right, you'd better do it yourself," might apply to car repair or window washing, it's not always an ideal strategy when going to war.

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