US Public Ever More Pessimistic on Iraq War

The findings of a spate of polls taken since last week’s release of the Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) recommendations for U.S. policy show a sharp drop in public confidence both in President George W. Bush’s handling of the war and in the chances that the U.S. will prevail there.

The findings will likely make it politically more difficult for the administration to rally support behind sending as many as 50,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq in a major effort to stabilize the situation, as reportedly proposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a meeting with Bush Wednesday and long advocated by neoconservatives and other hawks.

Roughly seven out of 10 respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News conducted over the past weekend said they agreed with the ISG’s proposal to withdraw almost all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 15 months, a move that would still leave tens of thousands of troops involved in training, logistics, intelligence, and other functions.

A CBS News poll taken at the same time found the percentage of respondents who favor either decreasing or removing all U.S. troops in Iraq rose from 50 percent just before last month’s midterm congressional elections to 59 percent last week.

Publication of the new surveys, which also include polls by the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg, Gallup, and Newsweek, came as Bush was engaged in a series of consultations since the ISG’s release purportedly designed to help him develop "a new approach" to the Iraq war that would enhance the chances for what he continues to call "victory" – a word deliberately eschewed by the 10-member ISG, a bipartisan group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton.

The White House had planned for Bush to conclude his review in the next week and then deliver a major address on U.S. policy before Christmas. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Tuesday that early January – just before the convening of the new Democratic-led Congress – was more probable.

She said that the delay would permit the incoming secretary of defense, Robert Gates, to contribute to the process. Gates, who served on the 10-member ISG until his nomination in early November, is believed to share the panel’s pessimism about the war and its doubts about the wisdom or sustainability of any substantial increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Some analysts believe that Gates will likely side more with Rice and the State Department in the internal fights between the hawks, based primarily in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and the "realists" which continue to bedevil the administration.

Bush’s ongoing consultations appear to have been designed in major part to diminish the impact of the ISG’s report by depicting it as just one of many reviews of Iraq policy that are underway. Bush has already publicly rejected several of its most important policy recommendations, including tying U.S. military and economic support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to its progress in achieving "national reconciliation" and engaging Syria and Iran in a wider regional effort to stabilize Iraq.

As described by the New York Times, these consultations have consisted of "a series of carefully stage-managed meetings with officials and outside experts whose common credential appeared to be their opposition to the recommendations of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group."

Nonetheless, the latest surveys suggest that the general public agrees far more with the ISG’s views about Iraq than with those of the administration, particularly its more hawkish components.

The surveys showed for example that they share the ISG’s view that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating." An all-time low of 17 percent – down from 40 percent one year ago – of respondents in the Gallup poll said the U.S. was "currently winning" the war, while those saying the U.S. "cannot win" rose from 27 percent to 35 percent in the last six months.

In the Washington Post poll, 52 percent of respondents said the U.S. is losing the war, while the CBS News poll found that 71 percent of respondents believe the "war is going badly" – up from 52 percent one year ago.

Similarly, the latest polls found across-the-board acceptance – from 65 percent in the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll to 85 percent in the CBS News poll – that the conflict in Iraq has devolved into a "civil war," a term steadfastly resisted by the administration.

Assessments of Bush’s performance on Iraq have similarly fallen to or near all-time lows, according to the surveys. Only 21 percent of CBS respondents said they approved of his handling of Iraq, a remarkable drop from 29 percent just three weeks ago. While the Post/ABC poll found a somewhat higher approval rating – 28 percent – that was still an all-time low, down from 41 percent as recently as September.

The drop in approval was particularly marked among Bush’s core supporters, according to the CBS survey. Seventy percent of self-described Republicans said they approved of his handling of Iraq in a poll released one week after last month’s elections. That percentage fell to a minority of 47 percent last weekend.

Moreover, majorities of respondents in both the CBS (53 percent) and Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg polls (56 percent) and a plurality (45 percent) said they had greater confidence in Democrats in Congress in handling the situation in Iraq than in Bush. In the CBS poll, the margin was two to one, and 79 percent of respondents said they expected Democrats to try to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Among those respondents in the CBS poll who had heard about the ISG report, 48 percent said they agreed with the main recommendations, while 19 percent said they disagreed. A similar question by the Newsweek poll elicited 39 percent agreement and 20 percent disagreement.

But all the polls showed much stronger support for specific recommendations – including those rejected by Bush – made by the ISG.

Nearly three out of four respondents in the CBS and Washington Post-ABC surveys, for example, supported tying U.S. aid for the Iraqi government to the achievement of specific milestones. Two out of three Newsweek respondents said they agreed with such a plan.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents in the Post-ABC and Newsweek polls agreed that Washington should hold direct talks with Syria and Iran for help in stabilizing Iraq, while 64 percent in the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll took that position.

Sixty-one percent of Newsweek‘s respondents also agreed with another ISG recommendation – that the U.S. "should make a renewed and sustained commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Respondents in several of the polls, however, were evenly split on whether Bush would seriously consider the ISG’s recommendations.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.