Iraq: Still a Matter of Opinion

There's a sizeable plurality of the American public that will never accept a war based on our foreign policy elites' ideological preferences or imperial ambitions. Most aren't pacifists -- that's a straw man -- but they believe war should be an action of absolute last resort.

It's a predictable factor, and one that the hawks that got us into Iraq should have taken into account when they formed their policy. They knew that they could sell the war using modern public relations techniques, a friendly media and the specter of 9/11. But there's a limit to how long you can spin the facts on the ground. Early public support was for the conflict they promised us, not the one we got. But they chose to turn a blind eye to the lessons of recent history, especially those learned during Vietnam.

Americans now have no more confidence in the statements coming from the podia of the Pentagon and White House briefing rooms today than they had during the "Five O'Clock Follies" era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But despite the fact that they have little or no public credibility, the hawks seem genuinely shocked by our lack of fealty. White House press flack Scott McClellan called John Murtha's (D-PA) call for a redeployment from Iraq "baffling."

What did they expect? Infused with that most stubborn of convictions, American exceptionalism, and burdened with the kind of ignorance one can only attain from studying "The Arab Mind" or "The Clash of Civilizations", they launched their adventure fully confident in the veracity of their propaganda. The results both in Iraq and here at home are as ugly as they were predictable.

The myth of declining public support

The right's vitriol towards those who now oppose the war in Iraq is based on a simple and wholly inaccurate narrative of the public's opinion about war and peace.

In their eyes, only the right's jingoists are virtuous enough, have enough fortitude and are willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish what they never question to be a lofty and noble goal. The public, according to this narrative, is weak and fickle and abandons ship when Americans start coming home in those proverbial flag-draped coffins.

But as Noam Chomsky wrote in The Guardian, "Polls have demonstrated time and time again that Americans are willing to accept a high death toll -- although they don't like it, they're willing to accept it -- if they think it's a just cause."

You'd never guess that from the American press, which almost universally supports the right's narrative. On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle editorialized in typical fashion that, "As the American death toll mounts above 2,000 -- with 10 soldiers killed in the last two days -- opposition to the open-ended U.S. occupation rises at home."

That's based on a superficial analysis of the yes/no "headline" questions that polls ask -- broad questions such as "Do you support the war in Iraq?" Based on questions like these alone, it would appear that support for the war in Iraq has plummeted: in April of 2003 -- just after the invasion -- a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought it was "worth going to war in Iraq." This month that same question in the same poll got just 38 percent.

But before it slips irretrievably down the memory hole, let's recall what public opinion was really like -- in various polls' internal numbers -- in the days and weeks leading up to and immediately following the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.

If you looked inside those polls, it was clear that the administration and their allies couldn't just shift the primary reason we went to war and expect the public to stick with them. The headline in a March 7 CBS poll, just two weeks before the invasion, found that 69 percent approved of "military action to remove Saddam." But by a 48-27 margin respondents said that their primary concern wasn't democracy building or regime change, but "making sure that Iraq is disarmed."

The headline in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll read "Steady Support for Action Against Iraq" -- seven out of 10 supported the use of force. But look at the secondary questions, which include this one: "The White House estimates the war, including one year of reconstruction and aid, will cost at least $60 billion dollars -- or approximately $300 per U.S. taxpayer." At that price, 69 percent of Americans said it is "worth it to disarm Iraq and remove Saddam" and 23 percent disagreed.

That poll was taken two weeks after Paul Wolfowitz had discounted the $60 billion dollar estimate as being too high. War Pollyannas said that Iraqi oil would settle the tab. As I write this, the cost of the Iraq War to date is over $214 billion dollars.

A Newsweek Poll conducted March 13-14, found that 70 percent supported "military action" against the Iraqi government (personalized, as always, as "Saddam Hussein"). But the poll, taken a week before the invasion and with UN inspectors still on the ground, also found that over half of those surveyed thought it "more important" to take time to "achieve our goals in Iraq without using military force" than it was to "move forward quickly with military action."

The headline in a Zogby Poll (March 14-15) was that war supporters outnumbered opponents by a 12-point spread (54-42). But there was a 19-point swing (to 43-50) when the question was: "Would you support or oppose a war against Iraq if there were thousands of American casualties?"

Another poll, taken by ABC News and the Washington Post one day after the attack was launched, found 72 percent supported the war. But over half of those polled didn't expect "significant U.S. casualties" (85 percent also thought we'd be in Iraq for less than a year).

Over 70 percent supported the war in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken four days after the invasion. But look at the internals: almost 90 percent of respondents thought that a thousand or fewer troops would lose their lives.

They didn't get these ideas from thin air. They got them from those who are now lashing out at war critics -- the very same people who spun us into this war with sugary and entirely unrealistic predictions.

That last poll was taken exactly eight days after Dick Cheney went on Face The Nation and predicted the conflict would "go relatively quickly," taking "weeks rather than months." That same day he was on Meet the Press saying, "I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." When asked if Americans are prepared for a "long, costly and bloody battle," Cheney replied: "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way."

Recall neocon Ken Adelman attacking the Brookings Institution's Philip Gordon and Michael O'Hanlon in the Washington Post for suggesting that "the United States could lose thousands of troops." That was the op-ed in which he famously predicted a "cakewalk."

While the headline of the ABC/Washington Post poll of March 27 found 69 percent supported the war, that support was based on a chimera; less than four in 10 thought it likely or very likely that the "United States will get bogged down in a drawn-out war in Iraq."

The poll was taken about one month after Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the conflict "could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

And I haven't even mentioned the huge number of people who told pollsters they were, as one poll put it, "certain" that WMD would be found, or those who believed in a substantive connection between the Hussein government and 9/11.

In the final analysis, the hawks have nothing to blame for the drop in public support but their own mendacity. If they want to lash out at those responsible for the political mess they now face, they need look no further than the mirror.

Lessons ignored

Support for and opposition to the war took center stage last week, as echoes of Vietnam reverberated through our public discourse.

It was a week that began with the release of thousands of pages of documents from the Vietnam era. It ended with the ugly and acrimonious debate on the floor of the House after Democratic hawk John Murtha dared to opine that maybe we should be getting ourselves untangled from Bush's war.

Representative Jean Schmidt (R-OH) suggested Murtha was a "coward" and speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) said he had adopted a "policy of cut-and-run."

Again and again during the "debate" -- if you could call it that -- war supporters stood and said they had learned the "lesson of Vietnam," and then proved that they had done anything but.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized what the hawks took away from that earlier, sad epoch of American militarism: "There are many lessons of the Vietnam War," they wrote, "but two of the biggest are these: Don't fight wars you don't intend to win, and while American troops can't be defeated, American politicians can be."

The real lesson from Vietnam should have been that the age of innocence -- the era when Americans would believe whatever their government told them uncritically -- is over. Vietnam showed that eventually the stickers and bunting and patriotic slogans will give way to the stark reality that an unnecessary war is just that.

There's no excuse for denying that reality, because if there's one obvious difference between Iraq and Vietnam, it's that the authors of the current quagmire had the history of the previous one to guide them.

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