Mackubin T. Owens
December 1, 2005
In Number 71 of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton wrote about the relationship between presidential rhetoric and public opinion in a republic.
There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the Executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted. The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly INTEND the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always REASON RIGHT about the MEANS of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it. When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.
This is a critically important observation. One of the most important functions of the president in our form of republican government, writes Hamilton, is to shape public opinion, not put his finger in the air to determine what direction the wind is blowing.
I don’t know if President Bush has ever read The Federalist Papers, but the steps he is taking to explain the policy and strategy of the United States in Iraq means that he has at long last recognized Hamilton’s principle. His speech at the Naval Academy is as fine an example of republican rhetoric as I have heard since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
We often forget that opinion polls have no constitutional standing. Nonetheless, when properly done, they can tell us a great deal about what the citizenry are thinking. And it is clear that in the absence of any attempt by the president to defend his policies, the vacuum has been filled by “by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess [the people’s] confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.” Under such circumstances, it should not be surprising that public support for the war has gone down.
Another name for such operators is “demagogue.” Our demagogues have pandered to the fears and weaknesses of the American rather than to their virtues and strengths. In his Naval Academy speech, President Bush did just the opposite, exercising his “duty [as one whom the people have] appointed to be the guardians of [their]… interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
Bush’s speech is the opening salvo in a campaign of public diplomacy to reinvigorate the war effort and restore public support for our enterprise in Iraq. It coincides with the release of the president’s Iraq strategy document, which is important in and of itself. The fact is that the United States has always had a strategy for Iraq, but any strategy worthy of the name must be adaptable.
What critics mean when they say there is no strategy is that they don’t like what the president is doing, although none have offered any alternative but withdrawal. By publishing the outline of his strategy, the president makes it impossible for his critics to take the easy way out. now they will have to put up or shut up… if only.
As far as the speech goes, I think he did a fine job today. Now he needs to keep up the fire.
Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.