Other than a national bubonic plague outbreak or an invasion by an army of vampiric arctic wolves from Canada, it’s safe to say that there’s almost nothing Barack Obama wanted to have to deal with less during his presidency than another crisis in Iraq. Getting us the hell out of there was one of the central planks of his 2008 campaign, and one month before he took office, George W. Bush helpfully signed an agreement with the Iraqi government stating that all American troops would be gone by the end of 2011, which they were. As the current mess has unfolded, Obama has repeated many times that though we’ll do what we can to help, the problem presented by ISIS is ultimately going to be the Iraqi government’s to solve. The practical steps he’s contemplating are restrained and limited.
In all this, Obama is exactly where the majority of the American people is. Yet they still express dissatisfaction with him over the issue. Only 37 percent of the public approve of his handling of the Iraq situation in the Times poll, and 42 percent approve in the Post poll. His own ambivalence is mirrored in a public that knows we should do something, but doesn’t want to do much. They certainly don’t want to add to the already tremendous cost Americans have paid for the original disastrous decision to invade in 2003. The Times poll asks, “Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the cost of American lives and other costs of attacking Iraq, or not?” When they asked this question just before American troops left in at the end of 2011, 24 percent say yes and 67 percent said no. In this latest poll, 18 percent said yes and 75 percent said no.
And what do Americans want to do now? They don’t want to send ground troops (30 percent say yes in the Post poll, 19 percent in the Times poll). They’re split on air strikes (46-45 opposed in the Post, 51-43 opposed in the Times). If you give them the option of drone strikes, approval is higher, with 56 percent approving and 38 percent opposed.
The Times also asked whether the situation in Iraq is something the United States can do something about or whether it’s beyond our control. Thirty-eight percent said we can do something about it, while 57 percent said it’s beyond our control. While you can quibble about the wording of a question here or there, the overall picture is one of a public that would like to help, so long as it doesn’t involve much direct risk to our personnel, but still doesn’t think what we do is going to make much of a difference. That certainly sounds like a description of where the President himself is at the moment.
So why doesn’t he get more credit for being on their side? We can stipulate that there is literally nothing Obama could do that would satisfy most Republicans; when he says he intends to do exactly what they want, they simply change what they want, since agreeing with him on anything is psychologically intolerable for so many of them. But what upsets most Americans, I suspect, is that we’re being forced to think about Iraq at all. To the American public, the place is a black hole, sucking all our good intentions and sacrifice and money and attention into its miasma of chaos. They hear that there’s an army of Sunni extremists rampaging through the country, then see that Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite followers are mobilizing in response (remember when they were the bad guys?), and they can’t figure out how anything we could do would possibly stop this nightmare.
There are some Republicans who believe as ever that with the proper steely-eyed will and delivery of ordnance that everything could turn out just peachy. But their numbers are small. Most of the public sees nothing good coming from Iraq, and even if President Obama agrees with them, they aren’t going to say that anyone’s doing a good job on this situation.