May 11, 2007

What People Think

Pollster.com has some interesting data and analysis on public attitudes toward the Iraq campaign. It appears that people are no less pessimistic overall about the eventual outcome in Iraq than they were a few months ago, even though fewer people say we have already "lost". Is that progress?

Whether it is or not, what strikes me is how hard it is to draw any meaningful conclusions from the data when public opinion is evaluated by such a simplistic measuring instrument as, for example: "Do you think that the U.S. war in Iraq is lost, or don't you think so?" (CNN).

Mark Blumenthal says the results are attributable to a shifting definition of what "losing" is. I'm inclined to read this data as reflecting less hopelessness today than existed in January. That's partially because I know I feel less hopeless today, and I imagine there are others like me who have allowed themselves a sliver of hope by virtue of Gen. Petraeus and his ongoing mission.

But I'm bugged by the inane and insulting poll questions in general. I have no specific issue with any one of the professional pollsters noted in the Pollster piece (excepting the transparently agenda-driven CNN). They do what they do because this basic level of approval or disapproval is all politicians demand of them, so they can interpret whatever vague results are achieved in a way that suits them. I speak primarily of Congress here. This President may be accused of many things, but allowing public approval polls to dictate his conduct of the war isn't one of them. And a war-weary public often seems not to want to be engaged beyond the level of thumbs up, or thumbs down.

At some point though, wouldn't it be nice to see a pollster assume some basic issue awareness on the part of its poll subjects, and ask some questions that reflect the complexity of the struggle? I mean, you could leave in an "I don't know" option for the truly clueless. Maybe something like: "Does the fact that al Qaeda leaders consider Iraq the "epicenter" of their war of murder and martyrdom against America and the world's Jews influence your feelings about our country's commitment to long term stability and self-government in Iraq?"

Other poll questions we won't soon see: "How do feel about the Iranian regime funding and directing elements of the Iraqi insurgency, and supplying the explosives for suicide missions that kill U.S. troops and innocent civilians?"...with a follow-up: "Remember?...the country that has sworn to "wipe Israel off the map", and is building a nuclear weapon with which to do so...that Iran?"

"Should we leave Iraq to them?

"Do the millions of Iraqi citizens we have promised to help achieve self-government deserve to live under the type of theocratic Iranian-dominated regime that is currently rounding up and imprisoning their own female citizens for showing too much skin in public?"

I for one would be interested in how Americans would answer those questions. Those answers would tell me something about the breadth and depth of American support for winning, in the war against Islamist terror. That would be far more instructive than tallying up the subjective judgments of civilians, on the matter of our country's strategic and military effectiveness. "How are we doin'? Good... or not so good?"

This way of phrasing the question doesn't allow the "No...but..." option. The one answer that might even be the majority sentiment in the country right now: "It's not goin' so good...but we just can't leave."

Or will we continue to have the debate (via polls) framed by the political left, often in the most simplistic and condescending of terms. Have we lost...or are we losing? Is Iraq a quagmire or a national disaster? Is Bush evil or do Republicans just love war? You know...that sort of thing.

Andy McCarthy says despite what they say, the Democrats don't want to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and asks of the party:

Why don’t its champions just reaffirm their preferred “Come home, America” summons? Why do they posture about leaving Iraq to confront al Qaeda in Afghanistan (while, naturally, taking no actual steps to ratchet up military operations in Afghanistan)?

Because the last time they tried unadorned “Come home, America” in the midst of a frustrating war, they suffered the worst electoral deluge in American history. Because they know that however low Bush’s numbers may now be, their own will be bottomless if their policy of withdrawal from Iraq is revealed as the resounding terrorist triumph it would be. Because they fully understand that, no matter how much they’d like to turn the clock back to September 10th, the majority of Americans well remember September 11th. Because they know it is unacceptable to leave the battlefield while al Qaeda is still on it. The Democrats have to keep saying “civil war”; if they acknowledge al Qaeda’s catalytic role in Iraq, in the killing of our troops there, they know most Americans will see “redeployment” as a euphemism for surrender.

This presents a last opportunity for the Bush administration. However ruefully and emptily, Democrats admit that we have to fight al Qaeda where al Qaeda is strong. It is thus the administration’s burden to demonstrate, compellingly, that al Qaeda is making a menacing stand in Iraq. Yes, what’s happening there features sectarian infighting; but it is not, as the Left contends, a civil war. It is infighting stoked by al Qaeda and the Iranian enablers with whom al Qaeda has colluded since the early 1990s. Both are making their stand, and both are intent on emerging dominant once we’re gone.

This is not the work of one presidential speech. It is the diligent, disciplined work of daily demonstration: Where is al Qaeda in Iraq? What are they doing? How many of those we’ve killed and captured have been imported jihadis rather than indigenous Iraqi insurgents? What is the scale of al Qaeda activity in Iraq versus its operations in other hot-spots? How many Americans in Iraq have been killed by al Qaeda terrorists? Why is it credible to believe that a U.S. withdrawal would turn parts of Iraq into safe-havens of the type al Qaeda enjoyed in Sudan and Afghanistan during the 1990s — when it repeatedly struck American interests?

Do read the whole McCarthy piece. As they say, it's all good.

The Bush administration, which has forever sucked at P.R., has its work cut out. But the case for the importance of the Iraq campaign must be re-made. And pollsters need to give Americans some credit for being semi-aware, and do better than:

"How is the U.S. Military effort going in Iraq?" (Pew)

A) very well
B) fairly well
C) not too well
D) not well at all
E) don't know

Mort Kondracke would probably answer 'C' above. Here at RCP, he's presenting his "Plan B"...called " Winning Dirty", for some reason.

The 80 percent alternative involves accepting rule by Shiites and Kurds, allowing them to violently suppress Sunni resistance and making sure that Shiites friendly to the United States emerge victorious...

...Winning dirty would involve taking sides in the civil war - backing the Shiite-dominated elected government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and ensuring that he and his allies prevail over both the Sunni insurgency and his Shiite adversary Muqtada al-Sadr, who's now Iran's candidate to rule Iraq.

Shiites make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population, so Shiite domination of the government is inevitable and a democratic outcome. The United States also has good relations with Iraq's Kurdish minority, 20 percent of the population, and would want to cement it by semipermanently stationing U.S. troops in Northern Iraq to ward off the possibility of a Turkish invasion.

...sounds a lot like what we've been planning and doing for years. The putting down of the murderous Sunni insurgency. The cobbling together of a workable representative government, helping to build and develop democratic institutions, achieving compromises from both sides, acknowledging the Shiite majority , and making the best of a difficult but necessary nation-building enterprise, while trying to keep people on all sides from killing each other. But now according to Kondracke, what we have heretofore called "winning", will be defined as "winning dirty".

Under a win dirty strategy, the United States would have to back al-Maliki and the Badr Brigades in their eventual showdown with al-Sadr. It also would have to help Jordan and Saudi Arabia care for a surge in Sunni refugees, possibly 1 million to 2 million joining an equal number who already have fled.

Sunnis will suffer under a winning dirty strategy, no question, but so far they've refused to accept that they're a minority. They will have to do so eventually, one way or another. And, eventually, Iraq will achieve political equilibrium. Civil wars do end. The losers lose and have to knuckle under. As my Congressional source says, "every civil war is a political struggle. The center of this struggle is for control of the Shiite community. Wherever the Shiites go, is where Iraq will go. So, the quicker we back the winning side, the quicker the war ends. ... Winning dirty isn't attractive, but it sure beats losing."

So, "winning dirty" means Sunnis must accept representation in government in proportion to their share of the population, and they cannot be permitted to continue fomenting murder and chaos in the belief that they are willed to power in Iraq. This is a "Plan B"? Acceptance of this arrangement somehow taints any potential deal? This turns winning into winning dirty? It sounds more like the goalposts being moved.

UPDATE 5/12: From Evan Kohlmann at The Counterterrorism Blog, an interview with an al Qaeda foreign fighter in Iraq:

Our most urgent need is for martyrs [suicide volunteers], we need martyrs more than anything else... To those of you who want to join the jihad in Iraq, then I would ask you to be patient and to organize everything before doing so. You should contact the brothers in Iraq before getting there.

---

“The beheadings are still happening, but we have an order not to broadcast them. Everything is videotaped but we can’t broadcast them. We do seek to capture and imprison American soldiers, but you have to understand that it is very difficult to do so because they patrol in groups, at least 15 soldiers at a time. We hope and pray to capture them."
- “In regards to the bill in the U.S. Congress for the upcoming withdrawal from Iraq, I would comment that this is a normal response to what is occurring. It is the result of the efforts of your brothers among the mujahideen...

Sen. Reid, Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Murtha must be so proud.

UPDATE 5/12: An excerpt from Joe Lieberman's speech on the Senate floor Thursday:

I am aware that public opinion has turned against the war in Iraq. The American people are deeply frustrated by the multiplicity of mistakes and errors that have been made. Progress has been too slow. The savagery of our enemy, which the American people witness on television every night, has been demoralizing. Many simply want to leave and wash our hands of what they perceive as a mess.

But, leadership requires sometimes that we defy public opinion if that is what is necessary to do what is right for our country. In fact, at a time like this, we are required to do what each of us believes is right, and that might not be what is popular.

And what is right, I firmly believe, is that we cannot allow our nation to be defeated in Iraq by the same terrorist enemy with which we are engaged in a world-wide conflict. The global war on terrorism which we are waging is a world-wide struggle against a barbaric totalitarian foe that is Al Qaeda. And today, it is Al Qaeda that we are fighting in Iraq. Al Qaeda itself has declared Iraq to be the central front of their larger war against our way of life.

All of us who are privileged to serve this great country in positions of leadership have a very serious choice to make.

Our judgment can be guided by the polls and we can withdraw in defeat. We can rationalize our action with the reassuring but falsely hopeful words like redeployment. No matter what we say, our enemy will know that America's will has been broken by the barbarity of their blood lust—the very barbarity we declare we are fighting, but from which we would actually be running. Mr. President, my main point is this: Now is not the time for more delay, for prolonged legislative posturing and bargaining over the supplemental appropriations bill. It is the time to do our duty to fund our troops, stand by our allies, and do everything we can to help them win the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

UPDATE 5/12: From the print edition of NR, Bing West writes of the hesitance to confront Iran over their support of the insurgency in Iraq:

I am surprised by how frequently both Iraqi officials and American officers tell me that Iran is waging a proxy war against the U.S. The press — probably in reaction to its having accepted in 2002 some intelligence assessments about Iraq that proved false — has bent over backward not to link the central government of Iran with explosive devices, money transfers, and Iranian agents active inside Iraq. It walks and quacks like a duck, but none dares call it a duck. Whatever the extent of its influence — through payments, weapons, and moral support to the extremists — Iran is widely perceived as a malign influence, with the U.S. playing defense.
Posted by dan at May 11, 2007 10:07 PM