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The Iraq Situation Isn’t As Bad As It Seems for the Bush Administration: It’s Worse

by Ruy Teixeira

Here is a brief review of the public’s current views on the Iraq situation.

1. The public overwhelmingly disapproves of the job Bush is doing handling the Iraq situation. His approval rating is now in the low 30's in most polls, with well over 60 percent disapproving. In fact, one poll (Newsweek) had his rating was at exactly 30 percent, indicating that we may soon see Bush’s first sub-30 approval rating on Iraq.

2. In the latest Gallup poll, 54 percent say the US made a mistake sending troops to Iraq. This is the same as Gallup’s previous reading on the question and exactly at the average of Gallup polls taken since early August. In other words, majoritarian sentiment that the Iraq war was a mistake has stabilized.

3. In the same poll, sentiment that “all in all” it wasn’t worth going to war in Iraq hit a new high of 60 percent, compared to just 38 percent who felt the war was worth it.

4. The poll also offered respondents four options for dealing with the Iraq situation: withdraw all troops now, withdraw all troops within 12 months, withdraw troops but take as long as needed to turn control over to the Iraqis or send more troops. The majority (52 percent) wants to either withdraw now (19 percent) or within 12 months (33 percent). The latest Harris poll shows an even larger majority (63 percent) in favor of bringing most troops home within a year, based on a question that reads: “Do you favor keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there OR bringing most of our troops home in the next year?”

Of course, questions on troop withdrawal are very sensitive to question wording, including number being withdrawn (some vs all), conditions necessary to trigger withdrawal, projected length of stay and magnitude of continued troop presence, so one must be cautious in interpreting the results cited above. However, all questions, no matter how worded, show strong growth in the number calling for troop withdrawal or a decrease in US troops, so the trend is not in doubt, even if the exact magnitude of withdrawal sentiment can be debated.

5. The public has become ever more convinced that the Bush administration actively and consciously lied to the American people in order to promote the Iraq war. In the Newsweek poll, 52 percent thought that Cheney “deliberately misused or manipulated pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities”, compared to just 33 percent who thought he did not. And in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the number believing Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq” has reached 57 percent, with only 35 percent dissenting.

Figures like these help explain how Bush’s ratings on personal characteristics have tanked across the board. In the Gallup poll, by 52-46, the public doesn’t think “honest and trustworthy” applies to Bush; by 55-43, they don’t think “can manage the government effectively” applies to Bush and, by 55-43, they don’t believe “shares your values” applies to him either.

Well, all this is bad, bad, bad for the Bush administration. But the worse news for them is this: based on how public opinion has evolved during this war and historical patterns during other wars, there is very little the Bush administration can do to stem the current decline in public support. That’s the message of John Mueller’s excellent, lucid piece, “The Iraq Syndrome” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Mueller is perhaps the pre-eminent academic expert on war and American public opinion and the entire article is worth a careful read, but here are some key excerpts from the piece:

The most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars [Korea, Vietnam and Iraq] is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005, when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who considered the Iraq war a mistake -- over half -- was about the same as the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, when nearly 20,000 soldiers had already died.

This lower tolerance for casualties is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam. The main threats Iraq was thought to present to the United States when troops went in -- weapons of mass destruction and support for international terrorism -- have been, to say the least, discounted. With those justifications gone, the Iraq war is left as something of a humanitarian venture, and, as Francis Fukuyama has put it, a request to spend "several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to ... Iraq" would "have been laughed out of court."....

Growing opposition to the war effort....has little to do with whether or not there is an active antiwar movement at home. There has not been much of one in the case of the Iraq war, nor was there one during the war in Korea. Nonetheless, support for those ventures eroded as it did during the Vietnam War, when antiwar protest was frequent and visible.....

Moreover, support for the war declines whether or not war opponents are able to come up with specific policy alternatives. Dwight Eisenhower never seemed to have much of a plan for getting out of the Korean War -- although he did say that, if elected, he would visit the place -- but discontent with the war still worked well for him in the 1952 election; Richard Nixon's proposals for fixing the Vietnam mess were distinctly unspecific, although he did from time to time mutter that he had a "secret plan." Wars hurt the war-initiating political party not because the opposition comes up with a coherent clashing vision -- George McGovern tried that, with little success, against Nixon in 1972 -- but because discontent over the war translates into vague distrust of the capacities of the people running the country.

Mueller believes reaction to this war will inevitably produce a sort of “Iraq syndrome” where the public seeks to avoid any possibly Iraq-like foreign entanglements. While it is possible that such a syndrome could lead to an unhealthy withdrawal from international engagement, Mueller summarizes some other aspects of an Iraq syndrome that could be quite salubrious:

Among the casualties of the Iraq syndrome could be the Bush doctrine, unilateralism, preemption, preventive war, and indispensable-nationhood. Indeed, these once-fashionable (and sometimes self-infatuated) concepts are already picking up a patina of quaintness. Specifically, there will likely be growing skepticism about various key notions: that the United States should take unilateral military action to correct situations or overthrow regimes it considers reprehensible but that present no immediate threat to it, that it can and should forcibly bring democracy to other nations not now so blessed, that it has the duty to rid the world of evil, that having by far the largest defense budget in the world is necessary and broadly beneficial, that international cooperation is of only very limited value, and that Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners are naive and decadent wimps. The United States may also become more inclined to seek international cooperation, sometimes even showing signs of humility.

We shall see–though such developments seem unlikely under the current administration’s watch.