September 14, 2006
Why Americans Oppose the Iraq WarBy Steven M. Warshawsky
The American people strongly supported the original war on terror, when it was aimed at destroying terrorists and punishing the regimes that harbored and supported them. The American people do not support the current incarnation of the war, which is focused primarily on democratic nation—building in Iraq.
In a previous essay for AT, 'The Bush Doctrine, R.I.P.,' I described the transformation of the Bush Doctrine from a strategy of using preemptive military power to defend the nation's vital security interests into a 'root causes' theory of Islamic terrorism that seeks to promote freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. Whatever the political or strategic merits of this new approach to fighting terrorism, it is undeniable that this transformation in the Bush Doctrine directly coincides with declining popular support for the war in Iraq.
Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was and remains politically popular.
The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003. At that time, President Bush told the nation that our war aims in Iraq were
Echoing his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush declared that
Significantly, the President expressly disavowed any American ambitions in Iraq,
This was the original Bush Doctrine — a bold, muscular vision that emphasized the use of overwhelming military force to protect our national security. Although President Bush also said that we were going 'to free' the Iraqi people, there was nothing in the President's invasion announcement that indicated we were about to embark on a long—term struggle to make Iraq safe for democracy.
Public opinion polls show that the American people strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. For example, a CBS News poll from March 22, 2003, reported that 72 percent of adults nationwide approved 'of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq,' while only 23 percent disapproved. A USA Today/Gallup poll from March 24—25, 2003, reported that 71 percent of adults approved of the President's actions in Iraq, while only 26 percent disapproved. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from April 27—30, 2003, reported that 75 percent of adults approved of the President's actions, while only 22 percent disapproved.
Thus, even after the initial shock of 9/11 had worn off, the American people overwhelmingly subscribed to President Bush's original anti—terror strategy.
In other words, our declared war aims, for all practical purposes, had been achieved. This is when the overwhelming consensus in favor of the war started to erode, as more and more Americans began to question why we were remaining in Iraq — which no longer could threaten us or our allies with WMDs — and, at the same time, why we were not taking similarly forceful action against Iran and Syria, both of which (unlike Libya) continued to pursue weapons of mass destruction or sponsor terrorism, including the insurgency in Iraq.
Although the polling data show that a bare plurality of Americans continued to support the Iraq war after 'major combat operations' ended, there was a strong surge in support when Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003. For example, a CBS News poll from December 14—15, 2003, reported that support for the President's actions in Iraq rose from 48 percent to 59 percent after Saddam was captured, and 63 percent agreed that 'the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq.' Similarly, an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 18—21, 2003, reported that public approval for the President's actions in Iraq rose from 48 percent to 60 percent after Saddam's capture, and 59 percent agreed that 'the war with Iraq was worth fighting.' In short, the capture of Saddam Hussein reminded the American people why we had invaded Iraq in the first place — to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam's regime — and the polls revealed that the country strongly supported this effort.
Indeed, three years after the invasion, the American people still support the President's decision to depose Saddam Hussein. For example, a Pew Research Center poll from April 7—16, 2006, reported that 78 percent of adults nationwide agreed that Iraq will be better off 'now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power by the U.S. and its allies,' while only 13 percent disagree. And a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from March 14—15, 2006, reported that an overwhelming 74 percent of registered voters agreed that '[t]he United States and the world are safer today without Saddam Hussein in power,' while only 24 percent disagree.
Despite the best efforts of the anti—war faction in Congress, the media, and academia, the American people have never wavered in their support for the President's original war aims in Iraq —
The vast majority of Americans were and are convinced that Saddam Hussein posed an unacceptable threat to our national security and that removing him from power was a proper course of action.
Hence, President Bush's low approval ratings are not due to the public's disapproval of this decision. Nor are they due to the ongoing debate over whether Saddam in fact supported terrorism and possessed WMDs. Rather, they are due to the public's disaffection with the President's much more grandiose vision of using American troops to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
It's the nation—building, stupid.
The President's current strategy for fighting terrorism started to emerge in 2003, after 'major combat operations' in Iraq had ended. At that time, skeptical commentators like Slate's Michael Kinsley caustically commented on the President's
while pointedly noting that the Iraq war 'was sold to the country on totally non—Wilsonian grounds.' Even as American troops in Iraq confronted a vicious and determined insurgency supported by Iran and Syria, President Bush continued to develop his 'neo—Wilsonian' strategy for fighting terrorism, which he articulated in important speeches to the Army War College in May 2004 and to the United Nations in September 2004.
President Bush's vision of spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East, as the centerpiece in the war on terror, was presented to the American people for the first time in the President's Inaugural Address in January 2005. In this speech, President Bush began by articulating what has been described as a 'root causes' theory of terrorism.
The President then offered his solution to this problem.
Thus, instead of 'outlaw regimes' pursuing weapons of mass destruction, the enemy was now 'tyranny' itself. And instead of preemptive military action to prevent and deter these outlaw regimes from developing the capacity to inflict maximum damage on the United States and its allies, the most important weapon in the war on terror would now be 'the force of human freedom.'
The President then boldly declared that
The President's new policy shocked observers on both sides of the political divide for its seemingly unrealistic, indeed impossible, goal. As Peggy Noonan remarked,
The point here, however, is not to criticize the President's faith in 'the force of human freedom' as the best strategy for defeating Islamic terrorism. (There is plenty of commentary already out there that makes this argument better than I ever could.) The point is that this faith is not shared by the American people.
Public opinion polls consistently show that more than 60 percent of adults nationwide now disapprove of the way President Bush is 'handling the situation in Iraq.' This opposition to the war appears to be grounded in (1) the public's perception that the United States is not winning the war as currently defined, and (2) the American people's skepticism that Iraq will ever become a stable, democratic country.
With respect to the progress of the war, a CBS News/New York Times poll from August 17—21, 2006, reported that 29 percent of adults nationwide believe that the war in Iraq is going 'very badly' and another 33 percent believe that the war is going 'somewhat badly.' In contrast, 32 percent believe that the war is going 'somewhat well' and only 5 percent believe that the war is going 'very well.' This negative perception was also reflected in a Newsweek poll from August 10—11, 2006, which reported that 58 percent of adults think the United States is 'losing ground in its efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq,' while only 31 percent think we are making progress.
This does not mean that the American people think we are losing the war militarily. A CBS News/New York Times poll from July 21—25, 2006, reported that only 13 percent of Americans believe the 'resistance' is 'winning the war in Iraq.' However, only 27 percent believe the United States is winning, and fully 58 percent believe that 'neither side' is winning. In other words, a solid majority of the American people believe that the Iraq war is a 'quagmire.'
Coupled with this negative perception about the progress of the war is the American people's skepticism regarding Iraq's prospects for becoming a stable, democratic country. The Newsweek poll from August 10—11, 2006, reported that 30 percent of adults nationwide are 'not at all confident' and 24 percent are 'not too confident' that the United States 'will successfully establish a stable democratic form of government in Iraq,' compared to 32 percent who are 'somewhat confident' and only 11 percent who are 'very confident' that the United States will achieve this goal. Similarly, the CBS News/New York Times poll from July 21—25, 2006, reported that only 4 percent of adults think that 'Iraq will become a stable democracy' in one or two years, compared to 41 percent who think it will take longer than two years and 53 percent who think it will 'never' happen.
An open—ended commitment to an amorphous goal spells defeat.
In sum, a majority of the American people already believe that President Bush's stated goal in Iraq cannot be achieved. And the trend in these poll numbers is towards more, not fewer, people believing that Iraq will never become a stable, democratic country. In the face of this growing skepticism about the President's nation—building aims in Iraq, public support for the war will continue to erode. Indeed, public opinion polls already show that more than 50 percent of Americans favor a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. This is the political reality 'on the ground' in this country that almost certainly will lead the next president to pledge to withdraw most or all American forces from Iraq by the end of his first term.
Tragically, by failing to establish realistic, tangible goals for what constitutes victory in Iraq — for example, regime change and eliminating Saddam's WMD programs, both of which were achieved three years ago — and by steadfastly maintaining that a 'premature' American withdrawal from Iraq will constitute a victory for the terrorists, President Bush has all—but—guaranteed that the United States will 'lose' in Iraq. Why? Because it is inevitable that the United States will withdraw its forces from Iraq long before President Bush's ambitious goal to transform Iraq into a stable, democratic country is achieved. Domestic politics will hardly permit American troops to remain in Iraq until the last Islamists have been killed by bullets or pacified by 'the force of human freedom.'
Yet according to the President's own calculus, this means we will have failed in our mission.
In essence, the President has 'set us up for failure' in Iraq. This is a political miscalculation of enormous proportions that not only will lead to a loss of American prestige abroad, but also will undermine support at home for the President's vital domestic initiatives for protecting the American people from future acts of domestic terrorism. By making the Iraq war the centerpiece of his anti—terror strategy, President Bush has made support for the war the litmus test for one's attitudes vis—�—vis Islamic terrorism.
Indeed, opposition to the war is widely disparaged by the President's supporters as 'appeasement.' Framing the debate in this manner has inflamed the anti—war faction in this country to such a degree that they are unable to acknowledge the obvious merits of the Presidents' other anti—terror tactics, including eavesdropping on suspected terrorists' communications and tracking their international financial transactions. The resolve of the American people clearly is being undermined by this acrimonious political divide. The result is that the entire war on terror is being jeopardized by the President's focus on Iraq.
President Bush's recent major speech before the Georgia Public Policy Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, continues to reflect the President's 'neo—Wilsonian' belief that transforming Iraq into a free, democratic country is the centerpiece of the entire war on terror. As President Bush stated,
In other words, protecting the American people from future acts of Islamic terrorism — which, after all, is the purpose of the war on terror — requires, first and foremost, ensuring the success of democracy in Iraq. To accomplish this goal, the President once again pledged that 'we will stay, we will fight, and we will win in Iraq.'
The President's address to the nation on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 reiterated these same themes.
Once again, President Bush has defined 'victory' in the war on terror as requiring, above all else, the transformation of Iraq into a 'free nation' that is a 'strong ally' against Muslim extremism.
Even if the President's vision of a free, democratic Iraq were something more than a quixotic fantasy — and a growing number of Americans (myself included) do not think it is — is it true that 'the war on terror will depend on the outcome in Iraq'? Is it true that 'the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad'?
Why does the President continue to define the war in these self—defeating terms? What about regime change in Iran and Syria? What about preventing Iran and other terror—sponsoring states from obtaining WMDs? What about hunting down and destroying known terror groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas? These were the major elements of the original Bush Doctrine, which the American people wholeheartedly supported.
Most importantly, these goals are achievable, as we saw in the two years following 9/11.
In his Atlanta speech, President Bush instead emphasized his grandiose strategy of 'leading the cause of freedom' in the Middle East and thereby 'chang[ing] the conditions that give rise to radicalism and hatred and terror.' According to the President, we will 'replace violent dictatorships with peaceful democracies.'
However, unless the United States is prepared to overthrow all of the governments in the region by force and then occupy their countries long into the future — which President Bush has no intention of doing and the American people would never support — the President's words amount to little more than meaningless noise.
This is truly unfortunate because the war on terror is the central issue of our time. The original Bush Doctrine offered a concrete approach to protecting the American people. President Bush's current Iraq—based strategy threatens to undo everything he has accomplished.
Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs for The American Thinker and other conservative websites.