The Success of the Surge


The Pew Center has a new survey out offering definitive evidence that the "surge" has, in fact, been a success in terms of its main goal of boosting the odds of an indefinite American military commitment to Iraq. Here we see on the left, for example, that coverage of the war in Iraq has plummeted in recent months. Stories like this one about how "the body of a Chaldean Catholic archbishop who was kidnapped in the northern city of Mosul last month as he drove home after afternoon Mass was discovered Thursday buried in a southeastern area of the city" aren't getting the kind of play they used to. After all, the war's over and there's nothing to write about or put on television.

Similarly, an item like "Iraq: Car Bomb Kills 11 in Baghdad" could be bad for home front morale, but thanks to the surge and to general Petraeus' surge of savvy press management, people don't hear as much about that kind of thing as they used to.

Similarly, depressing "downer" stories like "3 Fort Hood soldiers killed in Iraq bombing " aren't as big a deal in the media as they once were. And that's important, because for all the talk of the surge working, according to its proponents it's going to need to keep on working for something like ten years. Over time, that can add up to an awful lot of body bags so you don't want people to hear about that kind of thing.

And according to Pew, increasingly people aren't aware of how many soldeirs have died in Iraq. Isolated findings of public ignorance of some or another subject usually aren't as meaningful as they first seem, but Pew is showing a clear trend here. The public used to have a good handle on how many troops had died in Iraq, but ever since the surge started "working," people's understanding of the issue went into decline even as the body count kept creeping higher:

knowledge.pngIn August 2007, 54% correctly identified the fatality level at that time (about 3,500 deaths). In previous polls going back to the spring of 2004, about half of respondents could correctly estimate the number of U.S. fatalities around the time of the survey.

In the current poll, more respondents underestimated than overestimated the number of fatalities. A plurality of 35% said that there have been about 3,000 troop deaths, and another 11% said there have been 2,000 deaths. Just under a quarter (23%) said the number of fatalities is closer to 5,000.

In fact, these days the correct answer is around 4,000 but the surge has succeeded in making sure that relatively few people are aware of that fact.

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.