A Message About Priorities

Opinion polls show that Americans have one big priority; resolving the situation in Iraq.

The voters' message in November was loud and clear. Since then, it's been getting louder and clearer. In a December poll by Opinion Research for CNN, only 28 percent of Americans said they approved of the way President Bush is handling Iraq. Disapproval reached 70 percent, a new high.

Bush seems to have four options. Some anti-war critics want the United States to withdraw immediately. Just 21 percent of Americans support that approach. The Iraq Study Group recommended withdrawing within a year. Thirty-three percent of Americans favor that. Combine those two options, and you have a majority of Americans in favor of withdrawing within a year.

The third option is Bush's long-standing policy: Keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as necessary to turn control over to the Iraqis. Thirty-two percent of poll respondents

favor the status quo. Finally, there's the option advocated by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and endorsed by the U.S. commander in Iraq: Send more troops. That has the least public support. Only 11 percent of Americans favor additional troops.

Over the past six months, the one option that has lost ground is the status quo. Support for the view that the United States should take as long as necessary to turn control over to the Iraqis dropped from 42 percent in June to 32 percent in December. Every alternative has gained support, including sending more troops (which went from 6 percent to 11 percent). The message to Bush is: Do something different.

The president has been given that message twice. In November, the voters expressed no confidence in his leadership. In December, a bipartisan committee of the national establishment, the Iraq Study Group, issued a similar vote of no confidence. It gave Bush a list of 79 recommendations for changing course in Iraq—with instructions to follow them all. "I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad and say, 'I like this, but I don't like that,' " Co-Chairman James Baker said.

After receiving the study group's report, Bush put off announcing a new course for several weeks while he sought further advice on what to do. Freelancers rushed in to fill the vacuum. Four senators went to Iraq to complain about weak leadership. In Baghdad, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said, "There has to be leadership from political leaders here and, frankly, from political leaders in the U.S. as well."

Another four senators—Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Bill Nelson of Florida, and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—went to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over White House objections. They got political cover from the Iraq Study Group, which recommended that the United States negotiate with Syria and Iran because both countries can help resolve the situation in Iraq.

The public strongly favors negotiations with Iran and Syria even though it has no illusions about either country. Most Americans brand Iran and Syria as either unfriendly nations or enemies.

Bush has made it clear that in dealing with Iran, the United States has other priorities besides Iraq. "If they verifiably suspend their [nuclear] enrichment, we will come to the table," the president said at his December 20 news conference. The same with Syria—other priorities ("They've got to leave democratic Lebanon alone," Bush said).

The Iraq Study Group had one big priority: resolving the situation in Iraq. If Iran and Syria can help, why not bring them in? "Talking to an enemy is not appeasement," Baker said. Democrats have one big priority: resolving the situation in Iraq. "President Assad indicated that he was willing to seek common ground and explore issues of mutual interest," Kerry and Dodd said after meeting with the Syrian president.

Why is the American public open to negotiations with countries it doesn't like or trust? Because Americans have one big priority: resolving the situation in Iraq.

Bush has a different priority. He continues to promise "victory" in Iraq. In the CNN poll, only 27 percent of Americans said they think victory is likely. Twenty percent predicted defeat. The prevailing view? Stalemate (50 percent). The Iraq Study Group report never mentions a U.S. victory in Iraq. It dismisses the president's priority. And that explains why Bush has treated the report dismissively.