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March 15, 2008

Is the Surge Working?
Posted by Michael Cohen

I really like Matt Yglesias's blog so I feel kind of bad picking on him twice in one week, but he strikes me as the kind of guy who is not such a fragile flower that he can't handle a little push back.

Yesterday Matt cited a new Pew Center poll, which indicates that a) press coverage of Iraq has declined and b) American's knowledge of the number of troops killed these has also fallen, From these initially depressing statistics Yglesias draws the conclusion that the surge is working.

Controlling the information landscape is key, because the public continues to have mixed feelings about the underlying issue. People think the war was a mistake, and think it hasn't been worth the costs. But rather than quit right now, the median voter seems to want to let things play out for a little while longer. The challenge for people who want to end the war is to make people see that that's not a viable option -- that the real policy choices are between leaving in as quickly a way as is safe and practical or else staying for many years. The challenge for those who want to see the war continue indefinitely is to obscure the length of commitment they're talking about, and to obscure the ongoing costs of an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq. Judged by those standards, the surge is working pretty well.

That strikes me as a pretty rational way to view the situation, but I'm not convinced - and I hark back to some poll numbers I posted on last month.

In February, CNN asked Americans whether they favor or oppose the war in Iraq – 34% favor, 64% oppose. The same question was asked in June 2007, well before the security situation began to improve – and the numbers are exactly the same. Indeed, they have been remarkably consistent from month to month. One would imagine that with stories of improved security in Iraq and the conservative meme that success in Iraq is just around the corner these numbers would have seen a bump – but it simply hasn’t happened.

How about President Bush’s approval on Iraq. It was 28% in January 2007 when the surge was announced. Today, it has risen a statistically insignificant blip to 33%. Was it worth going into Iraq? According to an ABC/Washington Poll taken in January 2007, 40% said yes; today the number stands at 34%. And in probably the most important question as it relates to the 2008 election – should the US withdraw troops right away, within a year or should we stay in Iraq as long it takes to win the war.  Again, unchanged. Overwhelmingly, the American people want the troops either out now or out within a year.

What’s even more interesting is that Americans are quite aware of the improved security situation. According to a Newsweek poll, since August, the number of Americans who think that things are getting better in Iraq has nearly doubled -- but they don’t really seem to care. Their basic opinions on the war remain unchanged. The American people have made up their minds. They think the war in Iraq was a mistake; they disapprove of the current policy and they want the troops to come home.

With the public's mind largely made up about the war this most recent Pew poll should hardly seem surprising. In fact, you can lump me in with the great American body politic. I find myself spending less and less time reading the daily reports out of Iraq. It's not because I don't care, but it's because I view the war as a lost cause. My focus is far less on what is happening in Iraq, but how we get the troops home. In my view, the fundamental narrative of the war is unchanged and I can't imagine anything that I will read on a daily basis is going to change my mind. Now I can't get inside the heads of every American, but I wouldn't be shocked if many of them feel the exact same way.


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You could only find two things to disagree with Yglesias about?

It's well known that poll results differ depending on what questions are asked as they relate to political positions. The "true patriots" talk about in stark terms about war and victory while the "surrender monkeys" speak of diplomacy and withdrawal. Ask a citizen if we should "win the war" and you increase the possibility of a positive answer, and so on. Who is against victory?

The situation in Iraq is not in fact a war at all. The US won the war shortly after it invaded. General Garner's view was: We won -- let's get out and turn it over to the Iraqis. But Garner was relieved and the US went with Jerry Bremer and an unending oppressive military occupation resisted by Iraqis, primarily Sunnis and Sadrists. Of course people don't like an oppressive foreign military occupier particularly when there are religious issues.

So asking Americans about how they feel about winning the war in Iraq is a bogus question, and the answers have no meaning. If the question were: Do you favor wasting more American lives and spending more hundreds of billions of dollars to occupy and defend a new Islamic Republic which discriminates against women and is closely aligned with Iran? no doubt the poll results would be different.

The bottom line is that is doesn't matter what the American people think. That was proven shortly after the last election.

Maybe Americans haven't changed their minds about wanting to get out of Iraq but it is no longer the big issue. If we don't read about it in the papers- in today's NYTimes the only article I could find was the daily box with the names of the dead - and every article that does come up in the national press will say something like- "in spite of" X number of people killed by a bomb today the surge is a success, and violence is down. The surge is not a success the spin is.

I don't think 'get out and turn it over to the Iraqis' was a real option, because 'turn it over to the Iraqis' meant the Iraqi exiles, who weren't particularly popular. They would have needed American bayonets to keep them in power.

I think Garner, and the military, were planning on cutting troop strength in Iraq to about half the size of the invasion force, and had no definite plans after that.

This option is called 'ending the occupation' because theoretically the troops would be there at the invitation of the sovereign government (as has now been the case for some years). It's misleading to describe it as 'get out'.