Global Policy Forum

Resisting Iraq Fatigue


By Robert Nolan

Foreign Policy Association
June 23, 2005

Public opinion polls, congressional concern and a barrage of opinion pieces from the high-profile pundits indicate a growing American impatience with the slow pace of progress in Iraq. More than half of the U.S. public now says the war has not made the U.S. safer, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey, while a Gallup poll reveals 56 percent say the American effort to oust Saddam was not "worth it" and 60 percent hope for some kind of drawdown of U.S. troops in the near future. Despite the current spell of Iraq fatigue at the public level, military leaders and Bush administration officials have indicated U.S. troop levels will remain steady for the foreseeable future, as the international community rallies support for Iraq's political and economic transition at a U.S.-EU sponsored conference in Brussels.

A shift in public opinion

While American opinion over the invasion and occupation of Iraq has remained both steady and partisan over the past two and half years, recent polls indicate that trend may be changing. More than 40 percent of Americans now associate the war with the quagmire the U.S. faced in Vietnam, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, while Gallup reports 73 percent consider the current level of casualties - including 1,700 U.S. military deaths to date -- too high a price to pay.

Behind the shift in public opinion are reports that -- despite recent assertions from Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraqi insurgency is in its "last throes" -- anti-American forces are actually becoming more effective and sophisticated. "We're in a very, very dangerous period," one senior military official at the Pentagon recently told the New York Times, following a lull in insurgent activities after Iraqi elections earlier this year. "To be a successful insurgent you need to be able to create spectacular attacks, and they've certainly done that in the past several weeks."

Expressions of dissatisfaction from U.S. legislators over poor planning and the high costs associated with the occupation are also being played out in the media, with some Republicans seeking to distance themselves from Bush administration policy on Iraq. "The war has gone on longer and more violently than people envisioned," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) said in a Washington Post report. "We always accentuated the positive and never prepared the public for the worst...People are dying in larger numbers than we thought, and the insurgency seems to be growing stronger, not weaker," he added, noting the Bush administration was "ill prepared for the public trails and tribulations" it now faces. Graham's comments were echoed by his Democratic colleague Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who said the "gap between rhetoric and reality is in large part responsible for the sharp decrease in public support for our efforts in Iraq." Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) went even further, calling the Bush administration's policy on Iraq, "completely disconnected from reality."

Adding fuel to fire the has been a barrage of opinion and editorial pieces calling for what some say is a long-overdue leveling by the administration with the American people. "Instead of candor, the administration has supplied a stream of shifting explanations about the reasons for the Iraq war, realities on the ground, expected costs, duration and outcome," says a USA TODAY editorial, encouraging U.S. policymakers to "look at the facts as they are, not as some might wish them to be, and adjusting the approach accordingly." Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wonders if such an assessment is even possible. "Salvaging the venture will require an unprecedented degree of candor and realism from a White House that was never willing to admit -- even to itself -- how large an undertaking it was asking the American people to buy into," Dionne writes. "The worst possibility is that the president and his advisers believed their own propaganda. They did not prepare the American people for an arduous struggle because they honestly didn't expect one."

The Debate on "Staying the Course"

White House spokesman have become increasingly aware of the dangers of leaving the public unclear on U.S. Iraq policy. "The president takes seriously his responsibility as commander in chief to continue to educate the American people about the conduct of the war and our strategy for victory," said Dan Bartlett, noting the president will deliver a major address on Iraq at events this month marking the first anniversary of the handover of power to Iraqis last year.

According to former terrorism czar and author Richard Clarke, administration officials are beginning to signal "that things in Iraq are not going well and may not do so for a while," he writes in the New York Times. "Maybe its time to at least begin a public dialog about 'staying the course,'" he writes, suggesting it may be time to consider bringing some U.S. troops home. "Opponents of an 'early' departure of American forces say it would result in chaos in Iraq. Yet we already have chaos."

Still, U.S. military officials have refused to bow to public pressure regarding the withdrawal of American troops before an upcoming referendum, December's elections and the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution. "At this point, I would not be prepared to recommend a drawdown prior to the election," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Vines told Pentagon reporters this week. "To rapidly cut [U.S. force levels] without any significant change in conditions or without time to assess them, would not be a wise course of action."

Military experts and many pundits agreed. "The effort is going to take well into 2007 at the earliest before they can be cut to more limited levels," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If U.S. troops are cut now, he told the Dallas Morning News, the "end result is very clear: There's almost certainly going to be a civil war in Iraq." Other consequences of an early withdrawal, said experts, include a rise in terrorist activity in Iraq, as well as the collapse of U.S. credibility and democracy promotion projects in the region. "The last thing we need in Iraq is a timeline for withdrawal. Victory sets its own schedule, and it's not contingent on the U.S. election calendar. Arbitrarily forcing a timetable on the battlefield will only aid the enemy. Yet a growing number of politicians are now calling for just that--or, at least, a better (read more negative) official accounting of what's happening in Iraq," Wall Street Journal columnist Brendan Miniter writes. "With polls showing less support for the war and pols parroting that public opinion, we're in danger of losing sight of how to defeat the enemy."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it more bluntly. "Those who say we are losing this war are wrong. We are not" he told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, noting that a timetable for U.S. withdrawal would be "a mistake." "Success will not be easy and it will require patience. ... But consider what has been accomplished in 12 months."

International commitment

While American support for the reconstruction effort may be wavering, unusual signs of unity were on display this week at an international summit on the future of Iraq sponsored by the U.S. and the European Union. Leaders from the United Nations, NATO, the U.S. and European countries gathered to hear what Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said was not a donor conference, but an opportunity for Iraqis to present their "vision" for the war-torn country's future. Zebari appealed for political support from neighboring countries and a bolstering of Iraq's political, economic and security capacity from the international community - noting Iraq could handle an American troop scale-back as early as next year. "By then the capacity of our military would be greater," he said. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also pledged "strong and continuing support for the program to train Iraqi security forces both inside and outside Iraq."

If the daunting challenges and ongoing violence in Iraq, along with a fall- off in American public support for the war have a silver lining, The Economist writes, "it is that, for the first time in quite a while, the countries sitting round the table this week are unusually united in their goals for Iraq." Even United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who vocally opposed war, was compelled to offer one of his strongest comments regarding post-war Iraq, stating "loud and clear" that "the international community supports the government and the people of Iraq, and we are determined that the reconstruction of Iraq... must succeed."

While Annan writes in the Washington Post that the new Iraqi constitution, current peace building measures and economic recovery, "will depend largely on Iraqis," such measures will only be successful if they are part of a "broad-based and inclusive strategy that embraces the political transition, development, human rights and institution building, so that all of Iraq's communities see that they stand to be winners in the new Iraq," he said. "This is difficult for any society in transition" Annan writes, "let alone on as dangerous as some areas of Iraq are today."

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