Last mid-week, the Senate went off the rail, with a big bipartisan vote (79-19) for an exit strategy to be largely carried out next year. The operative phrase was calling for 2006 to be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."
This was followed with Rep. John Murtha's emotional call for immediate exit within six months of U.S. military forces from Iraq. This exit fever was lowered a little last Friday when the House of Representatives put an "immediate exit" motion to the vote. It was inevitably defeated with only three assenting votes. Virtually no responsible congressman was prepared to put his or her name to a formal congressional vote calling for such a policy.
As a point of reference, the most recent Gallup Poll found 19 percent of the U.S. adult respondents in favor of immediate troop withdrawal (more or less, the Murtha position), 35 percent favored withdrawal over the next year (more or less the Senate position), 38 percent in favor of keeping troops in Iraq until the job is done (the Bush position), and 7 percent wanting more troops (the Sen. McCain, pro-war conservative critique position).
Thus, 54 percent (19 plus 35) of the public currently favors an exit strategy over a success strategy, while 45 percent (38 plus 7) support a success strategy over an exit strategy. This represents a substantial reduction in public support for President Bush's war aims. This current public attitude comes at a moment of generally declining public support for President Bush based not only on the media's bad coverage of the Iraq war, but also in the context of the president's problems with Hurricane Katrina, the Wilson/Plame Libby story, high gas prices, a negative public view of the economy, the deficit and (for many) the Mexican border crisis.
For those of us who are convinced that the Iraq War must be fought until a successful outcome is obtained, the next three to six months are a critical period to rebuild public support. The task is substantial, but not overwhelming. Forty-five percent of the public still support success in Iraq. The challenge is to stop the decline in support, and regain 5-10 percent of public support -- which is only part of a larger group of current war doubters who only six months ago shared our strong support for sticking until the job is done.
We face three challenges. First, the president's current unpopularity is distorting support for the war downward (just as his prior popularity distorted it upward).
Second, the news from the front is so murky that virtually no one (including members of Congress and the Washington media, as well as the public) can have any fact-based confidence that they know whether things are going well or poorly in Iraq. Those of us in Washington can find Pentagon sources and "experts" to match our desired results -- but objectivity is seemingly impossible to come by. We can't follow in the news the trail of battles won or lost -- as we could during WWII following Gen. MacArthur's Pacific islands advance or Ike's progress through France and the Low Countries in 1944.
Third, there is little attention being paid to the consequences of failure. To convince the public that further sacrifice is justified, the public must have vividly in mind the price of failure and the value of success. If there is little price for failure, then losing even one more American life is not justified. If the price is immense, then further sacrifice is fully justifiable. (God bless the souls who would make such sacrifice -- it would be our beloved sons and brothers). That critical piece of the equation is currently largely missing from the public debate.
Given the current low esteem in which most of the senior Bush Administration officials are held by the doubting 54 percent of the electorate, it is unlikely that they can win back many of the doubters merely on their word and argument (or on the argument of its supporters in the media).
Thus, while I am generally doubtful of the utility of congressional hearings these days -- with their high propensity to become partisan slugfests -- we must take our chances and have substantial congressional hearings on points two and three, above.
It would be preferable, but highly unlikely, that Congress would organize and hold such hearings in December and early January. But given congressional schedules, late January and February are probably the earliest such hearings could be laid on.
The president could frame the opening of such historic hearings in his State of the Union Address. Then let's have it out, with as much informed testimony and as little vitriol as our political process and the passions of the people will permit.
Public opinion (and the elected politicians who both lead and follow it) is moving toward an exit cliff, the rocks beneath on which we will shatter our national interest and our national security. We will have one last chance late this winter or early spring to make the case for not jumping.