Public Found Likely to Support Baker Report

With the administration of President George W. Bush under mounting pressure to alter U.S. strategy in Iraq and the Middle East, a new public opinion survey quietly released this week found strong popular support for pursuing new diplomatic avenues as proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG).

The poll, which was conducted at the end of last month – before the release of the ISG’s report Wednesday – by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), found that three out of four of the more than 1,300 respondents favored direct negotiations with Iran and Syria on stabilizing Iraq, a key ISG recommendation that Bush appeared to reject Thursday.

Even stronger support was registered for a less controversial ISG proposal for a holding a major international conference aimed at stabilizing Iraq – an idea which has been endorsed by the administration.

The same survey found nearly 58 percent support for a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq within two years, compared to 38 percent who backed the administration’s current position – that U.S. forces should be drawn down only "as the security situation in Iraq improves."

The ISG, a 10-member group of senior former public officials co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, called for the administration to withdraw virtually all combat troops over the next 15 months while intensifying the training of Iraq’s security forces. It also stressed that Washington’s military commitment to Iraq should not be "open-ended."

The survey also found a more general public rejection of the Bush administration’s penchant for isolating perceived adversaries or threatening them with possible military action, as well as the neoconservative view that fear of U.S. military power enhances the country’s security.

Only a third of respondents agreed that fear of U.S. military power by foreign leaders was "good for U.S. security because then they are more likely to refrain from doing things the U.S. does not want them to do." By contrast, 63 percent said they agreed it was "bad… because it makes them seek out new means of protecting themselves from the U.S. , such as acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."

Thus, six in 10 respondents said the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq made Iran more likely to develop WMD, compared to three in 10 who took the opposite position.

The survey results, released during a week dominated by speculation and debate over both the ISG’s recommendations and the reaction of both the administration and the incoming Democratic-led Congress, as well as the confirmation of Robert Gates as Bush’s new Pentagon chief, is likely to underline the degree to which the public has lost confidence in Bush’s conduct of Iraq and Middle East policy. It was conducted three weeks after the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the Republican Party lost control of Congress in a Democratic landslide.

Indeed, according to another poll conducted this week and released late Friday by Zogby International, Bush’s popular approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 30 percent, down from 36 percent just before the elections.

Less than one in four respondents in the poll rated his handling of the Iraq war favorably, down from 39 percent just six months ago, while only 34 percent said the Iraq war has been worth the cost in U.S. lives, the lowest percentage in a long series of Zogby surveys on that question.

The polling firm’s director, John Zogby, attributed the decline in support to the growing perception that the war is going badly. He pointed, in particular, to Gates’ assertion during his confirmation hearing Tuesday that the U.S. was not winning the conflict.

On Wednesday, the ISG report called the situation in Iraq "grave and deteriorating" and warned that, even if the administration implemented all 79 of its recommendations, it may be too late to reverse the situation.

The accumulating impact of these developments was suggested by Thursday’s announcement by Republican Sen. Gordon Smith that he could no longer be "a good soldier" by supporting Bush on the war, calling the U.S. role in Iraq "absurd, (maybe) even criminal." Smith, the first Republican senator who voted to go to war in Iraq, suggested he would support a quicker withdrawal of U.S. combat forces than called for by the ISG.

The PIPA survey, which was carried out Nov. 21-29, was designed in part to determine public attitudes toward what was then anticipated would be the ISG’s main recommendations – a gradual redeployment of U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and direct talks with Syria and Iran as part of a larger diplomatic effort to stabilize Iraq.

As recently as Thursday, Bush appeared to reject engaging Syria and Iran on Iraq unless they comply with certain preconditions – in Iran’s case, freezing its uranium-enrichment program; in Syria’s, ceasing alleged efforts to destabilize the government in neighboring Lebanon, among other actions. The ISG, on the other hand, has called for the administration to engage the two countries on Iraq without posing preconditions.

The PIPA poll asked respondents specifically whether it was a "good" or "bad idea" for the U.S. to talk with Iran and Syria in the context of stabilizing Iraq. The results were virtually identical in both cases: overall 75 percent of respondents said such talks were a "good idea," while only one in five disagreed. A slightly higher percentage of Democrats supported the idea than Republicans.

On the issue of how long U.S. troops should remain in the country, 18 percent of all respondents said they should be out within six months; an additional 25 percent set a one-year deadline; and another 15 percent said two years.

On this question, however, the survey found a much bigger difference between Democrats and Republicans. Only 35 percent of Republicans supported withdrawal in two years or less. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans took Bush’s position that U.S. troops should be drawn down only "as the security situation improves."

But the events of the past week – notably Gates’ testimony and the ISG report, not to mention the deaths of 11 U.S. servicemen in one day – could well move more Republicans into the withdrawal column, according to PIPA director Steven Kull.

"The ISG report, in particular, will make it increasingly likely that Republicans and the public as a whole will distance themselves from the president," he told IPS. "We may be seeing some evidence for that already in the Zogby poll and what Smith said yesterday on the Senate floor. This will make it harder for the President to retain his present positions."

On more general strategic questions, the survey found that nearly two-thirds of the public believe that the world has become more afraid over the last several years that the U.S. will use force against them and that this was bad for U.S. security.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.