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Iraq: Americans Believe Iraq War Was Wrong, But That Surge Is Working

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus (center), arrives at the U.S. Senate to testify about the war (AFP) As the United States enters its sixth year of involvement in Iraq, polls show Americans are growing weary of waging war and are increasingly impatient with political leaders who say more time is needed to achieve victory.

Only 36 percent of Americans say the war in Iraq has made them safer -- one of President George W. Bush’s key reasons for invading. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke with Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, about Iraq and public opinion and how the war will affect this fall's elections.

RFE/RL: When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, about 70 percent of Americans thought it was the right thing to do. Now only about 35 percent think that. Five years on, how do Americans feel about U.S. involvement in Iraq?

Karlyn Bowman: The public opinion judgment on the war in Iraq is complex. On the one hand, Americans say that the war in Iraq was a mistake, by very substantial majorities. But on the other hand, they believe that substantial progress is being made because of the surge. When you ask the bottom-line question -- should we stay or should we go? -- you find that around 18 to 20 percent of Americans consistently say we should remove our troops now. And at the other end of the spectrum, about 10 to 12 percent want to beef up our presence. But everyone else is somewhere in between, favoring some sort of a gradual withdrawal.

RFE/RL: A national CBS News report released on March 18 found that 46 percent of Americans want to see U.S. troops leave Iraq within one year’s time -- the equivalent of beginning a withdrawal right now. Only 8 percent said they are willing to have the United States remain there for “as long as it takes” to win. What accounts for the difference between that poll and your numbers?

What do the soldiers on the ground in Iraq think? Read U.S. Troops' Assessment Of Mission Fluctuates

Bowman: I’m fairly familiar with the CBS poll. And I think how you word these questions certainly has an influence on the results. As I said, most people are in the middle -- favoring some sort of withdrawal, a gradual withdrawal over time. I mean, I don’t think the 8 percent is significantly different from the 10 to 12 percent of most polls that say they want to beef up our presence.

RFE/RL: How do you think Americans are judging U.S. success in Iraq? What criteria are they using to make up their minds?

Bowman: Well, first they look at the performance of the military. The military is the most popular institution in American life. Views about it are consensual [among] rich, poor, young, old, black, white -- all view the military very highly and certainly, when [the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David] Petraeus comes to testify, he benefits from the very strong positive impressions that Americans have of the military.

And clearly, in the last year, the military seems to, in the minds of many, have a clear strategy about how to proceed. Americans generally support presidents when a mission has been clearly defined and when it’s being carried out successfully. Certainly, Americans know what George Bush wants to do in the Middle East. Up until the surge, they didn’t think it was being carried out successfully. There’s still a huge distance to go, and Americans are not overly optimistic about the situation in Iraq or the situation in the Middle East, but they think some progress is being made.

RFE/RL: Congressional hearings in Washington this week with Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, are focusing on Iraq's progress, or lack thereof. Many legislators have pointed out that the 2007 troop surge was done to give the Iraqi government more time to get organized and get productive. One year later, it still hasn’t achieved most of the benchmark goals that the Bush administration set out. What signs are Americans looking for that Iraq is still worth sending its soldiers to fight and die for?

Bowman: We know historically, at least in the last 20 years, that it’s not so much the body count that determines Americans’ support or opposition to our involvement but whether a mission’s been clearly defined and is being prosecuted successfully. Americans are a little bit more positive about how the military mission is being prosecuted. I don’t think that they follow the day-to-day developments in the Iraqi government in terms of benchmarks that have or have not been met. And so I don’t think that that’s ultimately going to contribute to Americans’ views about how long we stay, overall.

I think Americans want a sense that things are getting better and that’s the way they’re thinking about the situation -- perhaps not separating out the military situation from the political situation on the ground. I think they feel some responsibility after having been there for a while, to sort of help the Iraqis move ahead, but that said, they’re still judging the war as a mistake.

RFE/RL: Let’s switch to this fall’s elections, in which Americans will elect a new president and hundreds of members of Congress. The presumptive Republican nominee for president, John McCain, agrees with Bush's strategy of staying in Iraq without a timetable for troop withdrawal. The two Democrats campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, would begin withdrawing troops now. How big of an issue will the Iraq war be for voters?

Bowman: It’s hard to know, again, how big an issue the war will be. I like to think about issues and politics as pots on a stove, and right now the economy is on the front burner at a full boil. It’s the issue that Americans are paying most close attention to right now, but Iraq is on the back burner. It’s at a pretty steady simmer overall.

One of the things that’s really been interesting in the polls in the last couple of weeks [is] a number of polling organizations have asked whether or not John McCain or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would be better able to handle the situation in Iraq, and they’ve also asked a generic question -- whether or not a Democrat would be better able to handle the situation there than a Republican. And again, reflecting the broad dissatisfaction in the land today, most Americans do say that a Democrat would be better able to handle the situation there than a Republican. A Democrat has a substantial lead on those questions.

But then, if you match up real people -- Hillary Clinton versus John McCain, Barack Obama versus John McCain -- in the two major polls that we’ve had, McCain has led both Obama and Clinton by 14 percentage points as the candidate better able to handle the war in Iraq. So at least at this point, it doesn’t appear to be the albatross for John McCain that many people suggested it would be.

RFE/RL: Will U.S. involvement in Iraq become a "single issue" for any voters? In other words, will it be the only criteria they use to decide which candidate to vote for?

Bowman: I think it’s possible. I don’t know whether we know at this point how large the single issue vote is on the war in Iraq. I mean, we have a lot of historical data about other issues -- about 3 percent of Americans vote the environment as the most important issue to them in casting their vote; about 10 to 15 percent vote [on the] abortion issue as the most important issue to them in casting their vote. But I don’t think we know yet at this point how big a single-issue bloc either supporters or opponents of the Iraq war are.

We do know -- and this has been true historically in public opinion -- that we have what I’ve called “a peace party” in the United States. It’s about 20 percent of Americans who, in this war and past wars, have not wanted to go to war at all -- didn’t matter whether our allies went along, didn’t matter whether the United Nations went along. And you have a hard core of about 20 percent of American saying they want to get out [of Iraq] now, they want to bring our troops home immediately.

That would be an extraordinarily large single-issue vote in American politics, and I don’t think it will be that large by election day. But certainly there are some voters who will see this as the main issue to them in casting their votes.