By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The debate at home over the Iraq war has shifted significantly in the two months since Gen. David H. Petraeus testified to Congress and President Bush ordered the first troop withdrawals, with more Americans now concluding that the situation on the ground is improving.
A new poll released yesterday underscored the changing political environment, finding the public more positive about the military effort in Iraq than at any point in 14 months as a surge of optimism follows the rapid decline in violence. Yet Bush remains as unpopular as ever in the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and the public remains just as committed to bringing U.S. troops home.
The evolving public attitudes reflect, or perhaps explain, a turn in Washington as well. While Bush and Congress are still fighting over the war, the debate has moved to the back burner as Iran, spending, health care, the economy and other issues generate more political energy. The focus of the presidential campaign, especially on the Democratic side, has broadened as well. Even antiwar groups that once denied that security has gotten better have recalibrated their arguments to focus on the failed efforts to reach political conciliation among Iraqi factions or the risk of war with Iran.
The shift has strategists in both parties reevaluating their assumptions about how the final year of the Bush presidency and the election to succeed him will play out. If current trends continue, Iraq may still be a defining issue but perhaps not the only one, as it once seemed, according to partisan strategists and independent analysts, particularly if the economy heads south as some economists fear.
"What this reinforces is that Iraq is not as much of a pressure point as it was through much of the year -- which is not to say that it goes away as an issue," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. "If Iraq were to either go away or have a much lower profile in the coming election, it would certainly be good for the Republicans and could be a transforming factor. But it's real important to get 'could be' in that sentence."
The Pew poll highlighted the dichotomy in public views. Nearly half of Americans, or 48 percent, believe that the military effort in Iraq is going well, up from 30 percent in February, and 43 percent agree that U.S. forces are making progress in defeating insurgents, also up from 30 percent. The last time Americans felt as positively about the military effort was in September 2006.
Still, the proportion of Americans who want to bring troops home has remained essentially unchanged at 54 percent, as has the share who think the effort in Iraq will ultimately fail, at 46 percent. Bush's job approval rating has actually slipped by three points to 30 percent. (The survey was based on a sample of 1,399 adults interviewed from Nov. 20 to 26 and has a three percentage point margin of sampling error.)
Antiwar groups dismissed the importance of the poll. "The bottom line is the bottom line, and that is that people want out," said former congressman Tom Andrews (D-Maine), national director of a coalition called Win Without War. "That hasn't changed and that isn't going to change."
Former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a war supporter and top adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said it may be too late to change the public's mind when it comes to the fundamental issue. "The central question is not: Are we winning or losing?" he said. "The central question is: Was it worth it? And that was resolved a long time ago."
And yet, at least to an extent, the Washington debate has moved on. Congress made only a faint effort to pass legislation mandating a troop withdrawal as part of a $50 billion war spending bill this month and then quickly shelved it. Not counting the Turkish conflict with Kurdish rebels, Bush at his most recent news conference last month was not asked about the Iraq war until the 10th question. Not a single Iraq question came up at four of White House press secretary Dana Perino's seven full-fledged briefings this month.
Similarly, the Democratic presidential candidates who seemed to talk about little other than Iraq early in the year have spent more time quarreling about other issues lately. At their Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, the word "Iraq" was used 44 times, but the word "Iran" came up 69 times. Even Andrews's antiwar group plans to launch a new campaign, including television and print ads, focused on Iran, not Iraq. The message to Democrats, he said, will be: "If you can't act to stop the war in Iraq, can you a least act to stop a war in Iran?"
War supporters are adjusting strategy as well. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who co-founded a group called Freedom's Watch to press Republicans to stick with Bush's war policy, sees an opening to expand the message. "The campaign we launched in August was really to make sure Republicans didn't defect," he said. "Now it's fair to say, because facts have changed on the ground, that we have the opportunity to bring back on board independents who had been lost."
While the Iraq debate has faded for the moment, it promises to resume as funding needs become an issue. In pushing their case to deny Bush further money for the war, opponents have dropped the argument that violence really has not fallen and point instead to the fact that the troop "surge" earlier this year has not yielded the political accord it was supposed to.
"The White House tends to focus on the military situation and ignore the political situation," said P.J. Crowley, a Clinton White House national security aide now at the Center for American Progress. "Remember, the surge is a tactic, and while a discrete tactic may be working better than expected, the overall strategic position has not fundamentally changed."
Even so, it has changed some political calculations. If the violence remains down, it may enable Petraeus when he returns to Washington in March to recommend pulling out more than the 30,000 troops now scheduled to leave by July. If so, the fall general election could be played out against the backdrop of troops coming home.
"Now everybody says they're for pulling out troops," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar who has studied wartime public opinion. "The question is just how fast. That fuzzes the issue. If violence is still down, if the cost of the mission goes down, that makes it easier to stay there even if there's no progress."