Military Confidence in Bush Hits New Low

Although morale among members of the professional corps of the U.S. military remains generally high, the military’s confidence in President George W. Bush and other civilian government leaders slipped substantially during 2005, according to a major new survey released Monday by the Military Times.

The survey, the third in an annual series, found that approval of Bush’s Iraq policies by military professionals fell from nearly two-thirds at the end of 2004 to just 54 percent in late 2005, while their support for his overall performance dropped from 71 percent to 60 percent over the course of the year.

While both ratings remain significantly higher than the approximately 40 percent approval given Bush and his Iraq policy by the general public in late 2005, the military levels appear remarkably low given the fact that 60 percent of the military respondents identified themselves as Republicans – twice the percentage of the civilian population.

Among self-described Republican civilians, Bush’s approval ratings have been much higher – 80 percent or more – while support for his Iraq policy among civilian Republicans stands at about two-thirds.

"The military had been so steadfast behind Bush," said Times managing editor Robert Hodierne, who said he was surprised by the decline in confidence. "When [the president’s ratings are] dropping nine and 11 points – especially in this community, which is very Republican and noticeably more conservative than the general population – then the president needs to pay attention."

If support for Bush and the Iraq intervention among the professional military appears to be waning, however, lack of confidence in other civilian institutions – particularly Congress and the media – is even more pronounced, according to the survey. It found that the estrangement between the military and the country’s civilian leadership, a concern since the early 1990s, appears, if anything, to have grown over the past year.

And the civilian leadership in the Pentagon also appears to be viewed with skepticism. Fifty percent of respondents said they did not believe the civilian leadership of the Defense Department had their "best interests at heart."

The vast majority of military respondents also took issue with the Bush administration’s estimates that the Iraqi military will be ready to replace large number of U.S. troops over the next year or two. Only 29 percent agreed with that projection, while 40 percent said it would take three to five years, and an additional 24 percent said from five years to more than 10 years.

The survey, which was based on 1,214 completed questionnaires that were sent to 4,000 active-duty personnel in all major services, has come to be seen as one of the most accurate barometers of attitudes held by the professional career military, a group that has been notoriously difficult to poll.

According to the Times, however, the survey’s respondents tended on average to be older, more experienced, more likely to be officers, and more career-oriented than the general military population. More than half the respondents reported that they had served either in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The results come at a time of growing controversy over Bush’s strategy in Iraq, in particular. Led by Rep. John Murtha, a highly decorated 37-year Marine Corps veteran who is considered particularly close to the uniformed military, Democrats have pressed the administration to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq over the next year.

Murtha, who has called for an even faster pullout, has expressed particular concern that the Army and Marines – who make up virtually all of the almost 160,000 troops currently deployed to Iraq – are so overstretched that their ability to recruit and retain troops is seriously threatened. In a television program this week, Murtha shocked many viewers by saying that he would not join the military under current conditions.

Despite growing doubts about the Iraq mission, however, the survey found that morale in the armed services remained high. Eighty-five percent said they were at least somewhat satisfied with their work, roughly the same percentage as in the previous two years, and roughly three out of four said they would support their child’s decision to pursue a military career. Seventy percent said they would reenlist today.

On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they either "strongly agreed" or "agreed" with the statement that the military is "stretched too thin to be effective." While that percentage appears high, it was about 10 percent lower than in the previous two years.

Nonetheless, skepticism about Iraq, in particular, has clearly risen among the career military over the same period.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq; 26 percent said no – an increase of five percent compared to a year ago – while the remainder said they either had no opinion or declined to answer.

Similarly, confidence that Washington would succeed in its mission there also fell in 2005. At the end of 2004, 83 percent respondents said success was either "very likely" (38 percent) or "somewhat likely" (45 percent). One year later, the comparable percentages were 31 percent and 42 percent, respectively – a combined decline of 10 percent.

The increased skepticism was reflected in the loss of confidence in Bush’s handling of the war. The 9-percent decline in approval of his performance was particularly striking in light of the relative continuity in answers to most other questions.

"It says something about what the professional military is thinking," said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst and senior Pentagon official under former President Ronald Reagan currently at the Center for American Progress (CAP)."It’s like they’re saying, ‘I thought these guys knew what they were doing.’"

Dissatisfaction with the way wars have been waged in Iraq and Afghanistan also showed up in the reasons given by respondents on whether they wanted to reenlist. Among the 70 percent who said they would reenlist, Iraq/Afghanistan ranked the lowest of nine possible answers – far behind "patriotism," "pension," and "job security." On the other hand, the 19 percent who said they would not reenlist cited the two wars as one of the two most important reasons for their decision.

Aside from the decline in confidence in Bush and his Iraq policies, according to Hodierne, the survey’s most striking finding was the loss of confidence in Congress. Only 31 percent of respondents said Congress had the professional military’s "best interests at heart." Just one year ago, the figure was 63 percent.

But he told IPS it was unclear whether the decline was directed against the Republican majority’s efforts to cut some health and related benefits for the military or the calls by Murtha and other Democrats for a withdrawal from Iraq or some combination of both.

The survey also found greater confidence in the senior military leadership than in the civilians running the Pentagon. Only 40 percent said the latter had their "best interests at heart," compared to 64 percent who described the military brass in that way.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.