Iraq in 2008 (And Beyond)

The polls I cited yesterday, showing minimal support for a sustained U.S. military presence in Iraq, go to what I think is an underlying misjudgment that many conservatives are making about the surge and its impact on the domestic debate about the Iraq War. John Podhoretz, for instance, wrapping up a lengthy and very much worth-reading essay on the GOP's fortunes and Iraq, argues that the Democrats' post-surge failure to push through legislation mandating withdrawal means that "when it comes to Iraq, [the Democrats], too, appear to be at cross-purposes with a substantial body of American public opinion." Which leads him to this optimistic conclusion:

It is a great irony that the best political news for Republicans in a notably unfavorable election year—with the public telling pollsters that it is desirous of change and prefers Democratic stands on most issues by margins ranging from ten to twenty points—may come out of Iraq. Should the surge’s progress continue and deepen, the Democratic nominee may find himself or herself in a very uncomfortable position come autumn. The Democratic base will not have changed its mind about the war’s evil, and it will not be happy with a leader who does. So the nominee will find it almost impossible to embrace the surge, and certainly not after having disparaged it caustically in the past. But if the nominee does not embrace the real possibility of victory in Iraq, he or she will run the risk of appearing defeatist, or worse, in the eyes of the same independent voters who fled the GOP in droves in 2006.

So the GOP can hope. But I think Podhoretz overstates the impact that the surge has had thus far on public sentiment about Iraq. “Absent the surge strategy and the new way forward that it offered,” he writes, “Democrats would probably have prevailed on their declared intention to force a pullback from Iraq in 2007.” I agree. But it does not follow from this statement that our recent successes have done anything to fundamentally reverse the dynamic that pushed independent voters into the arms of the Dems in 2006. The adoption of the new strategy in Iraq had two major effects on the domestic debate, so far as I can tell: First, it stiffened conservative support for the war effort, which had begun to waver around the '06 midterms, and thereby placed GOP legislators in a position where they could not cross party lines to vote for withdrawal without forfeiting the support of their own base. (See Gilchrest, Wayne) Second, by reducing the body count and arresting Iraq’s spiral down to civil war, it pushed the conflict off the front pages and often out of the public eye entirely. This achievement didn’t increase support for the war, but it did reduce, at least on the margins, the priority that Americans placed on ending it, and allowed closer-to-home anxieties – over health care, the mortgage meltdown, immigration and now the looming recession – to rise to the fore.

This combination was sufficient to blunt Democratic momentum on the issue, and it allowed a determined President to rally his own party to stay the course, at least for the time being. But winning a battle on Capitol Hill when you control the White House and enjoy a sizable Senate minority is very different from winning a debate in the general election, and on that front, at least, the most that can be said is that the surge has reduced the advantage that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will enjoy this fall on Iraq, by increasing support for the war (and thus turnout, presumably) among once-wilting conservatives, and diminishing, if only slightly, the struggle’s salience for independent voters.

This is no small achievement, given where things stood, both in Iraq and at home, in November 2006. Indeed, it may be an achievement that keeps the United States in Iraq for many years to come. For one thing, the surge’s on-the-ground successes may make it nearly-impossible for even Barack Obama to pull the trigger on withdrawal, given how completely the country’s stability – and with it, the region’s – seems to depend on a large-scale and aggressive American presence. For another, the domestic dynamic the surge has created – where the war is unpopular but no longer dominating the public discourse, and where a vocal minority of Americans supports it unreservedly – have placed a continued occupation on a more solid footing, for the reasons that John Robb lays out here among others.

But the fact that the war effort may be sustainable in the teeth of public opposition doesn’t come close to making Iraq a winning issue for the Republican Party in the ’08 general election. Nowhere in the polls have I seen the sort of turnaround in public sentiment that many hawks seem to assume is taking place. Majorities continue to see the war as a mistake, victory unlikely, and withdrawal as our best option, and the numbers have barely budged since last January. The only number I've seen that justifies any conservative optimism is the percentage of Americans saying that the surge is improving the situation in Iraq, which has ticked up to close to 40 percent after being in the 20s at the beginning of the year. But this uptick seems to be primarily a case of the war recovering conservative support; it hasn't had any effect on the overall pro-withdrawal, anti-war majority.

Now it’s possible that having the popular John McCain as the war’s spokesman, rather than the discredited George W. Bush, will shift the numbers; it’s possible, too, that the polls on when and how we should withdraw are a lagging indicator, and that if progress “continues and deepens,” as Podhoretz puts it, the public will eventually come around. But for now, at least, conservatives are placing their hopes for 2008 in shifts in public opinion that no eye has seen and no ear has heard.