This week, the American public will surely be focused on Iraq, as Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker present their reports to Congress. Petraeus and Crocker will undoubtedly speak of the striking military success of the surge strategy, while Democrats will try to focus on the failure of Iraqi politicians to reach agreement on major issues.
But Iraq is not the only challenge America will face in the coming years. Islamist terrorists will continue to try to attack the United States and undermine if not destroy our free society. And Americans, for all the media's concentration on Iraq, seem aware of this -- and will be keeping it in mind as they decide on how to vote next year.
That's the message you get from an interesting poll conducted in mid-August by Public Opinion Strategies, a widely respected Republican firm, for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Unlike most polls, it doesn't include specific questions on Iraq, but rather focuses on the wider struggle.
It still shows some divisions that parallel those on Iraq. Will the United States be safer from terrorism if it confronts the countries and groups that promote terrorism or if it stays out of other countries' affairs? Some 48 percent prefer confrontation, 44 percent staying out of other countries' affairs. Fully 79 percent of Republicans are for confrontation, while 67 percent of Democrats are for staying out of other countries' affairs.
But you don't see such a partisan division when the question is whether the next generation of Americans will be less safe from foreign threats than we are now. Americans agree by a 57 percent to 39 percent margin -- the margin of agreement is statistically identical among Republicans (17 percent), independents (19 percent) and Democrats (18 percent).
Will the threat from Islamic fundamentalism be significantly reduced once George Bush is no longer president? By a 58 percent to 35 percent margin, Americans say no. Will that threat be significantly reduced once U.S. troops leave Iraq? By a 58 percent to 37 percent margin, they say no.
What we see here is quite at odds with what has been the prevailing political dialogue. When the question is approval or disapproval of the conduct of the war in Iraq, the middle segment of the electorate -- independents -- have joined Democrats in expressing sharp disapproval. In the Democratic presidential debates, candidates have been vying to show that they support withdrawing from Iraq (though lately some have felt obliged to concede that they wouldn't remove all U.S. troops anytime soon). On this issue, the Democratic field is in line not only with the Democratic primary voter, but also with most of the general electorate.