Increasing media coverage has been lavished on Cindy Sheehan and her anti-war protest in recent weeks, imbuing her with celebrity at a speed that can only be called dizzying even for a culture as celebrity-obsessed as our own. Intense scrutiny has been focused on Ms. Sheehan's spoken comments and correspondence by way of demonstrating that, however grievous her loss, her political views are far out of step with those of the mainstream public's. However much this may be true (I myself disagree with much of what Ms. Sheehan says), it is misguided to dismiss the "Sheehan Phenomenon" as the cynical media ploy of leftist politicos, its significance does not reduce so easily. New poll numbers from Gallup this morning show that President Bush's approval rating has hit an all-time low. It would be foolish to dismiss any connection whatsoever between the President's low numbers and the media frenzy surrounding Cindy Sheehan's protest, but I would argue that that Sheehan's visibility has been buoyed by the President's downward slide, not vice-versa.
Why would this be so? Arguments about the advisablity of the Iraq war and its prospects for success continue unabated and are not likely to stop any time soon. Such debates do not control or inform public opinion, however. In reality, the Iraq war has always been, from the outset, as much a domestic political as a foreign military enterprise. The strategic undertaking of the war has always been constrained by the level of domestic support that the administration enjoyed.
Bush administration critics have taken the administration to task for planning only for the "best case scenario" in Iraq. In truth, this critique applies as much to the administration's management of domestic politics with regard to the war as to military planning. Any look at poll numbers just prior to the war show that the mandate upon which the adminstration acted was very soft and came with many strings attached; the degree of public support on which Bush rode to war left very little margin for error in the conflict's conduct.
Many arguments may be forwarded in defense of the Iraq war in the abstract- Saddam Hussein was a cruel monster from whom the Iraqi people had to be rescued, striking down despotism in Iraq might help change public opinion in the Muslim world, democracy in Iraq may help spread political reform throughout the Middle East, etc. None of these principles, however, reflect the bedrock views upon which domestic support for the Iraq war was built in the first place. Polls clearly show that by far the greatest breadth, depth, and firmness of support for the war among the US public sprang from one simple belief- that Iraq posed a clear and present threat to the US and that the invasion would remove an IMMEDIATE danger to US security.
Given that the firmest support for the Iraq war was built on this latter principle, is it any wonder that public support for the war (and the Bush administration) has begun to erode? Again, one may argue in the abstract about whether or not the Iraq war will make the US sager in the long run, but core support for the invasion was not based on "long run" expectations. Most Americans believed, on the eve of the invasion, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he had been integrally involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. They thus threw their support behind the President's plan on the understanding that it would make them safer right away. Even then, most poll respondents answered that they would not favor a war that would result in many US casualties.
Right now, with casualty figures mounting and terrorist attacks in Madrid, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and London, the public is left feeling that they are paying a cost they were not willing to expend without reaping the benefits they hoped to realize in return. Consequently, the administration is left fighting a war for which it does not have a proper mandate. Though tactical conditions clearly demonstrate that more troops would aid the security situation on the ground, the administration cannot contemplate such a move because any rise in troop strength would cause a proportional rise in casualty numbers.
Cindy Sheehan's views may be extreme and her tone shrill, but her high profile and broad impact can not be put down to the machinations of a left-wing conspiracy. Her message receives the airplay it does at least in part because it resonates with what have always been the visceral feelings of the American public about this conflict. However much they overtly disagree with her, behind closed doors the Bush White House's conduct of the war is informed by the same political forces that fuel Ms. Sheehan's sojourn in the media spotlight.