A sharp turn in US perceptions of war

Recent successes in war buoy Americans, typifying how 24/7 coverage abruptly changes the national mood.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch is rescued in a daring midnight raid in Nasiriyah. In Najaf, US forces are greeted by jubilant crowds in a scene one battalion commander compared with "the liberation of Paris." Outside Baghdad, Army and Marine divisions have punched through Iraqi Republican Guards and are preparing to take the capital.

In just a few days, talk of Vietnam II and hounding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld out of town has given way to images of success and generals predicting one of the greatest military victories of all time. To analysts, this whipsaw effect is part of the rhythm of 21st century warfare, when shrinking news cycles of 24/7 coverage create their own storyline and shape perceptions of how the war is actually progressing.

"A lot of commentators, because of the guerrilla tactics, ... have harked back to Vietnam," says Michael Vickers, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "To me, the more appropriate analogy is the first three weeks of the war in Afghanistan, when there was gloom and doom - 'It'll be a year and a half before the first city falls' - right before, of course, the whole northern half of country fell and a month before the rest of it fell."

Still, when the dust settles, the record will show that the Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, was quoted on the record a week ago saying that the war would likely last longer than expected because of overextended supply lines and unforeseen guerrilla attacks.

Other angry, unnamed US officers in Iraq were quoted in The New York Times this week complaining about Secretary Rumsfeld's decision to send in a smaller initial deployment than some Pentagon planners had recommended.

Followup headlines have highlighted defensive top officials - including Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers - criticizing the critics and calling their comments harmful to the troops out in the field. General Myers also scored the media for publicizing anonymous criticism.

But through it all, public opinion has remained solidly behind the war at around 70 percent, leading some analysts to suggest that the war of words has mainly provided fodder for the chattering classes and not much more.

"I see this up here [on Capitol Hill] - everyone's moods are affected by what the news cycle is on the hour," says an aide to a pro-war Republican senator. "My sense is that there's a real bifurcation between those with real jobs in real America who can't pay attention to the TV screen 24/7 and those inside the Beltway. A lot of this has played out in the elite papers, which the elites read on their doorstep in Washington."

The White House, aware that the ability to press ahead in Iraq hinges on strong public support, has taken no chances and retooled its message machinery when Rumsfeld and Co. appeared set back on their heels. President Bush himself, after lying low for the initial days of the war, has appeared in public regularly, highlighting atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime, honoring the fallen, and reminding Americans that war isn't easy.

"We will not stop until Iraq is free," Bush declared to cheering Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., yesterday.

The administration has also learned that it can't gloss over the negatives too much, as reporters embedded with US military units provide a bit of a reality check on the messages out of Washington.

The Bush White House has reverted to the campaign-style message discipline that helped it win control of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, sticking with simple themes.

It is also continuing to place on the president's schedule events focused on the economy, certainly mindful that polls show the public views the president's handling of the economy as just as important as his handling of the war - so far with much less success. The latest Gallup Poll shows that 74 percent of the US public rates economic conditions as "only fair" or "poor."

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows better news for the White House as it has sought to temper expectations for the war, following prewar predictions of a quick campaign. The war has gone "about as expected," say 67 percent of those polled. On the toughness of Iraq's military force, 58 percent say it has been "about as expected." And 67 percent feel confident "about the value of the use of US military force in Iraq."

To old White House hands like PR consultant Sig Rogich, who worked for both President Reagan and the first President Bush, the current tempest over expectations vs. reality is nothing new. "War is unpredictable, and some people saw the [1991] war in the Persian Gulf as the most successful endeavor in the last 100 years of this nation, but still there were moments of uncertainty out there," he says.

But even if expectations for now seem in line with reality, the good news of the past few days may give birth to a new round of over-enthusiasm, as seen in some of the latest punditry: "This is going to turn out to be one of the most brilliant, if not the most brilliant, campaign in the history of warfare," Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (ret.) said on Fox News.

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