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Bush is losing support on Iraq

It is terribly gauche to cite oneself. But here I go, plumbing new depths of tastelessness. As the military advantage in Iraq was turning decisively toward the United States and as public support for the war reached its zenith, on April 9, 2003, this column suggested that the then-current levels of support were transitory and that at some future point the American public would reach a judgment about the success of the war.

It is terribly gauche to cite oneself. But here I go, plumbing new depths of tastelessness.

As the military advantage in Iraq was turning decisively toward the United States and as public support for the war reached its zenith, on April 9, 2003, this column suggested that the then-current levels of support were transitory and that at some future point the American public would reach a judgment about the success of the war. I argued that perceptions of success would likely be based on criteria that were difficult to define precisely but that “clarity of purpose and continuing progress toward goals” would be central to the public verdict.

Americans no longer believe we are making “progress toward our goals.” An ABC/Washington Post poll revealed in June that, more than ever, voters think we are getting “bogged down” in Iraq, with only about a third of the public seeing “good progress.”

Beating back the insurgency only became an objective as a result of the botched occupation. But on this front, too, people see little progress, with less than one-quarter believing the insurgency is getting weaker.

One of our initial goals was to strengthen the U.S. battle against terrorism. Here, too, Americans see retrogression, not progress. Only a quarter of the American people believe the war in Iraq has left our country in a stronger position, while nearly 4 in 10 believe it has rendered us weaker. When the question is framed specifically in terms of the war on terrorism, as Harris does, Americans are evenly divided, but only 43 percent accept the administration’s view that war has strengthened us in the war on terrorism.

Still, in the midst of the war itself, I suggested Americans would be asking about weapons of mass destruction. Boy, are they! At least a plurality — and in some polls, a majority — of Americans now believe Bush purposely misled us on WMDs.

Then there are the troops: How long are voters willing to keep them there?

As is often the case, different questions yield different answers. The Washington Post headlined its poll story, “Most Support Staying in Iraq,” citing a question that found 58 percent saying that “the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there,” compared to 41 percent who believed “the United Sates should withdraw its military forces from Iraq to avoid further casualties.”

Harris came to the opposite conclusion, finding 63 percent in favor of “bringing most of our troops home in the next year,” compared to 33 percent who favored “keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there.”

One important difference between those questions is in the time horizon each contemplates. The ABC/Post poll is not specific, but the implication is immediate withdrawal (if we are “to avoid further casualties”). Harris talks about withdrawal in a year. That may not seem like much time to military planners, but it does to ordinary people.

The CNN/USA Today /Gallup poll provides some analytic leverage by asking how long troops should stay. Forty-four percent said less than a year, while 31 percent responded “one to two years.” Thus, 75 percent want a commitment of two years or less. Not immediate withdrawal, but hardly willing to stay for as long as it takes.

Despite Bush’s best efforts, Americans are judging the war in an increasingly negative light. But Democrats need to be careful in critiquing the Bush war policy. Sometimes, even when we speak a truth with which voters agree on national-security issues, their takeaway is that we are not strong enough to face a dangerous world. We need to find ways to take on the president’s policies while still manifesting our fundamental toughness.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.