When a New York Times poll found that the number of Americans who think it was right for the United States to go to war in Iraq rose from 35 percent in May to percent 42 percent in mid-July, rather than promptly report the new poll findings, the paper conducted another poll. As the Times' Janet Elder wrote Sunday, the increased support for the decision to go to war was "counterintuitive" and because it "could not be easily explained, the paper went back and did another poll on the very same subject."
Round Two found that 42 percent of voters think America was right to go into Iraq, while the percentage of those polled who said that it was wrong to go to war had fallen from 61 percent to 51 percent. The headline for Elder's piece read, "Same Question, Different Answer. Hmmm." But it should have read: "America's Paper of Record Out of Touch With American Public."
Elder wrote that growing support for the war seemed odd: "Once in a while a poll finding doesn't make sense." It occurred as Congress was debating the war and the Bush administration had to report that Iraq had failed to meet a number of benchmarks for progress.
Too true. But at the same time, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had begun warning the public of the consequences of a premature withdrawal. Brass serving in Iraq were explaining why they wanted more time to let the surge work, as they were making inroads in fighting insurgents and winning support from the Iraqi public. Most important: President Bush had responded to criticism of the administration's erstwhile undermanned whack-a-mole Iraq strategy, which had depressed U.S. troop morale, by putting Gen. David Petraeus in charge of Iraq and implementing his nuanced counterinsurgency and no-retreat surge plan.
To assume that this change in leadership made no difference is tantamount to admitting that the criticism of the Bush administration's policies was designed more to hurt Bush than to win the war. (Be it noted, many San Francisco Bay Area readers are so averse to the idea of victory that they will challenge me to define it. That's because they do not want to imagine an Iraq in which citizens are secure, Iraqi forces operational and U.S. troops can begin to withdraw without fearing genocide.)
While the Petraeus strategy does not quite bolster the decision to go into Iraq -- Elder noted that, oddly, the poll did not find a change in voter approval of Bush' handling of the war -- war polling always has been problematic.
Consider the July 13-15 Rasmussen poll that asked likely voters if it is "possible for the U.S. to win the war in Iraq": 32 percent answered yes, 54 percent no. Yet when asked if Washington should wait until September before making major changes in Iraq, 51 percent said yes, 38 percent said no. If voters really thought the war cannot be won, they would not want to wait until September.
On Sunday, the Times also ran an opinion piece, "A War We Just Might Win," by war critics Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, which has prompted Beltway biggies to notice that the surge is paying off.
Well, not everyone inside the Beltway. Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., dismissed the piece as "rhetoric." "I don't know what they saw, but I know this, that it's not getting better," Murtha told CNN. Since this war began, there always have been people rooting for failure.
With the death toll of U.S. troops surpassing 3,560, Americans have cause to be wary and distressed. They may tell pollsters that they are pessimistic, but that does not mean that they are prepared to lose.