On June 8, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 American troops from Vietnam. Within the next few months, he would declare that tens of thousands more were coming home. "He was reluctant to withdraw," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and the author of several books on war and public opinion, "but he kept being pushed by politics."
Nixon recognized that, without U.S. military support, the government of South Vietnam would fall to the communist insurgency, and he believed that such a fall would represent a humiliating and costly defeat for the United States. "But Nixon realized that his approval ratings would slip fast unless he made progress in bringing the boys home," writes Stanley Karnow in "Vietnam: A History." American officials searching for a "breaking point" in Vietnam had found one, but what had broken was not the insurgency. It was U.S. public opinion: Americans no longer believed the war was worth it.
President Bush may not know it yet -- or, then again, he may -- but in Iraq he is about to do a Nixon. Psychologically and politically, the withdrawal phase has already begun. Militarily, the pullback will start within weeks, or at most months, of the Dec. 15 Iraqi parliamentary elections.
How can I be sure? I'm not, and I have no inside information. But the evolving structure of public opinion about Iraq is making the current war effort there unsustainable.
The public has been souring on the Iraq effort for months, and lately the numbers have taken a turn for the worse. In November, a majority (54 to 45 percent) told the Gallup Organization that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Those interviewed leaned, albeit narrowly (50 to 46 percent), toward thinking that the United States will not win.
More ominous for the Bush administration were responses to a survey question regularly asked by Rasmussen Reports, a nonpartisan polling organization: "Which is more important, getting American troops home as soon as possible or making sure that Iraq becomes a peaceful nation enjoying freedom and democracy?" In October, the proportion who preferred coming home crossed the 50 percent barrier, reaching 53 percent (versus 38 percent who preferred helping Iraq to become peaceful).
There are at least two ways to read those numbers. David Winston, president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling and strategy organization, argues that most of the public still supports the mission of establishing a democracy in Iraq but that the administration needs to do a better job of explaining what it has accomplished and how it plans to succeed. "Because they don't understand what's happening," Winston says of the public, "they're unhappy."
If he is correct, then this month's Iraqi parliamentary elections, combined with Bush's framing of those elections in his State of the Union speech next month, may prove decisive. "I think we've hit a very critical point," Winston says. Bush seems to agree: Last week, he unveiled a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" and delivered the first in a series of high-profile speeches assuring the public that "our strategy in Iraq is clear."
The other way to read the numbers suggests, however, that the problem goes deeper than poor communication. In this second view, public opinion has already passed the point of no return. Public support for the Iraq effort, Mueller writes in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, has declined more precipitously than did support for either the Korean or the Vietnam War, "and if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline." Support for the Vietnam War never recovered once a majority came to believe in 1968 that the war was a mistake. According to Gallup, last month a higher percentage of Americans called for an Iraq withdrawal immediately or within a year (52 percent) than wanted a comparably speedy withdrawal from Vietnam in the summer of 1970 (48 percent).
Iraq, of course, is not Vietnam, and Bush is not Nixon. Bush owns the Iraq war and won re-election promising to stick it out, whereas Nixon inherited the war in Vietnam and ran for office promising to end it. Although Bush shares with Nixon a fierce determination not to pull out without winning something that plausibly resembles victory, it is Bush who arguably has more personal and political credibility on the line. He therefore may be willing to hold out against public opinion longer and more doggedly than Nixon did, and his party's control of Congress -- which Nixon did not have -- may help him do so.
Nonetheless, not even the most stubborn of presidents could hold out for long against a decisive shift in the public's attitude toward the war. The structure of public opinion suggests that such a shift has taken place.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked a revealing series of questions about Iraq. Pew's respondents were more optimistic about eventual success in Iraq than were Gallup's, with 56 percent saying that efforts to establish a stable democracy will succeed. Still, only by the slenderest of margins (48 to 45 percent) did Pew's respondents say that taking military action in Iraq was the right decision (the remaining 7 percent either said they didn't know or declined to respond).
Now that seems odd. If the public thinks success is still likely, why is support for the policy so weak? Because, apparently, the public no longer views success -- defined as building a stable democracy in Iraq -- as worth the effort.
The United States went to war to get rid of Saddam Hussein and remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. Well, Saddam is gone, and Iraq is WMD-free. So why are U.S. forces still fighting?
Bush says the U.S. presence in Iraq is essential to fighting terrorism. That was a strong argument for a while, but the public no longer buys it. In the Pew survey, respondents were just as likely to say that the American effort in Iraq is hurting the war on terrorism as they were to say that it's helping. Moreover, two-thirds said they believe that the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack on the United States has not diminished since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As for Vice President Cheney's insistence that the war in Iraq is necessary to fight the terrorists -- well, let's just say his argument seems unlikely to change many minds.
Bush also says the Iraq effort will help democratize and stabilize the whole Middle East. The public is not buying that, either. Pew finds only a third of the public saying that democratizing the Middle East is a good idea that will probably succeed. The majority said they believe either that democratizing the region won't succeed (36 percent) or that it is a bad idea altogether (22 percent).
Finally, a sizable majority is worried about the decline in America's image overseas, and it blames the Iraq war for much of the decline. Two-thirds of the respondents told Pew that America is less respected now than in the past, and 43 percent of the public (not just of the two-thirds) calls this a "major problem." And what caused America's decline in the world's eyes? A heavy majority, including almost two-thirds of Republicans, points to Iraq.
What emerges here is not fleeting disenchantment, but a coherent and hard-nosed critique of Bush's strategy. The administration's fundamental problem is not that the public is discouraged by U.S. casualties, or that news from Iraq has been bad, or that the president needs to give better speeches. The problem is that many Americans see no stakes in Iraq sufficient to justify the military effort and diplomatic cost.
If Pew's findings are accurate, then presidential rhetoric and developments in Iraq have mostly ceased to matter. The public will not support a military operation that it has come to regard as social work on behalf of Iraqis, rather than security work on behalf of Americans.
"I think we've reached a point where news from Iraq itself is not likely to reverse the trajectory," says Scott Rasmussen, the president of Rasmussen Reports. By contrast, "troops coming home is a new dynamic. And that is what will change poll numbers." Indeed, a combination of returning U.S. forces and lower oil prices come November, Rasmussen says, would be "Democrats' nightmare."
And so, any day now, the president's political advisers will likely go to him and say something like this:
"Mr. President, if U.S. forces are not clearly on their way out of Iraq by about June 30, we will face a bloodbath in the midterm elections, and the Republicans will lose the House or the Senate or both. On the other hand, if U.S. forces are coming home, you will have cut the legs out from under the Democrats. They will have no choice but to support your drawdown or call for an even faster one. Either way, they would be in no position to blame you for any subsequent setbacks over there. Right now, you have nothing to say on Iraq that makes sense to the public. Once the troops start coming home, it will be the other side that has nothing to say."
Which will Bush choose? If political reality alone does not sway him, he will likely conclude that maintaining a massive Iraq deployment in the face of increasing public hostility is unsustainable and ultimately counterproductive, setting up conditions for a Vietnam-style collapse and a backlash against Bush's democracy agenda.
So by spring, if not earlier, look for Bush to announce that progress in Iraq allows U.S. forces to start coming home. He will say that the drawdown is the best way to help the Iraqis stand on their own. He will argue, much as he did with his tax cuts, that whatever pace he sets is precisely the right pace, and that withdrawing any faster or slower would be the height of irresponsibility. He may also say that withdrawing is "not a formula for getting out of [the region], but one that provided the only sound basis for America's staying in and continuing to play a responsible role."
Those were the words of Richard Nixon, who, somewhere, is wanly smiling.
Jonathan Rauch is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the National Journal, which has a version of this article in its current issue.