News & Politics

Barbershop Wisdom Says Bush in Trouble

The war in Iraq was sold to the U.S. public in ways that resonate with Americans' moral views about violence. With those rationales falling apart, you can hear the tide of public opinion turning.
"Bush is in trouble," he said.

This was neither a columnist nor a politician. It was my barber, Phil. And when Phil says that Bush is in trouble, he is.

Phil was born in the United States, but his parents are from Mexico. His Spanish is fluent. His intimate barbershop in San Jose reflects much of contemporary American society. His customers are U.S. citizens, but born everywhere: California, the Midwest, Latin America, East and Southeast Asia -- they all come through. The TV is tuned to CNN, when there are no sports to watch.

"We knew that Saddam was a bad guy, but how many bad guys are there in the world? Are we going to go after them all?" Phil asks. "And where are all those weapons?"

I expect that Phil's words are being echoed in many barber shops, beauty salons, taverns, ball fields, golf courses and around a lot of kitchen tables this month as Americans begin to ruminate on the Bush administration's actions in Iraq.

It feels like public opinion on the war is beginning to turn. Like Phil's, the unquestioned support of many for the war is beginning to erode. But why should there have been strong support in the beginning and during the conflict, and slippage now?

I think that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, knew the answer. She would certainly have understood Phil. Mead witnessed four world conflicts: World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. She knew a lot about American attitudes toward violence and conflict, and she would have understood Phil very well.

In her classic work, "And Keep Your Powder Dry," and in numerous other writings, Mead pointed out that Americans have four prevalent attitudes toward the use of violence:

  • First, Americans see themselves as resorting to violence only in defense, never for aggression.


  • Second, Americans say they use violence for altruistic, never for selfish purposes.


  • Third, though Americans must put up a strong defense, they are never bullies.


  • Finally, for Americans, violent action is a "job" with a finite length.


The Bush administration sold Americans the conflict in Iraq based on just these principles.

It was essential that the war be seen as defensive. Therefore there had to be weapons of mass destruction ready for imminent use. There also had to be an implicit tie between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, since the war had to be tied to an actual attack on American soil.

It was also essential that the war be conceptualized altruistically as a "war of liberation" designed to "bring democracy to Iraq" rather than a "war for oil" or a "war to establish American hegemony."

Because Americans are not bullies, every instance of civilian death, or destruction of non-military targets had to be seen as "accidental" or "collateral damage."

Finally, as President Bush stated on March 17, two days before military action began, the war had to be billed as short and limited in scope. Americans would do a job and get out.

Americans were in full support of the war, because it was sold to them using principles in which they already believed. In many ways, they were provided with rhetoric they could not resist. It was the sales job of the century.

However, for Phil and others, the bases on which Bush administration sold the war are cracking.

The defensive purpose of the war is now being called fully into question. Weapons of mass destruction have not been found. The al-Qaeda connection remains non-existent.

The altruistic nature of the war is being overwhelmed by stories of profiteering by American industrial interests with ties to the administration, like Halliburton, and continual reference to Iraq's oil resources. The idea that the United States was bringing democracy to Iraq is fading as American viceroy Paul Bremer establishes his own hand-picked counsel of transition leaders headed by Ahmad Chalabi, widely viewed as an American puppet. The majority Shi'a population has been excluded from the process.

Americans are increasingly seen as bullies. They are no longer defending anything in Iraq, and so are treated as unwelcome occupiers by the citizens, who protest and fire on them. Some 41 have died since May 1, when President Bush declared that military action in Iraq had ended; some in accidents, others from enemy fire.

Finally, it looks like the idea of the Iraqi mission as a self-terminating job is a vain hope. The American military will be there for a very long time.

So, for Phil and for others, the Iraqi war looks like it was sold under false premises, and they are beginning to wonder why they bought it.

Margaret Mead had one other observation that is relevant here: Americans value straight dealing, and hate being cheated. When they are cheated, their anger knows no bounds.

Bush is in trouble.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University. He is editor of eight volumes of the work of Margaret Mead dealing with contemporary society.
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