Column: The Public Eye: On a Collision Course Over Iraq

By Bob Burnett
Friday June 01, 2007

Here on the left coast, there’s such strong opposition to the war in Iraq that the May 24 Democratic capitulation to President Bush came as a shock. We thought that Dems won back control of Congress because of their opposition to the war, so we didn’t understand why they pulled the requirement for troop deployment timelines out of the military appropriations bill. Fortunately, this isn’t the last vote on the war; it’s merely another skirmish in an extended battle between Congressional Democrats and the warmonger-in-chief. 

The good news is that trends in public sentiment favor the Democrats. According to the latest Gallup Poll, roughly 60 percent of Americans now believe that it was mistake to send troops to Iraq and 70 percent feel that things are going badly there. As a consequence, most Americans favor troop withdrawal. However, they are divided about when to withdraw: 20 percent say “immediately”; 38 percent say “in 12 months’ time”; and 26 percent say “take as many years as needed.”  

The 58 percent in favor of withdrawal within 12 months isn’t a huge majority and that’s reflected in the thin pro-withdrawal plurality in Congress, where a two-thirds majority is required to overcome President Bush’s veto. Some political observers believe that in the next debate over funding for Iraq—the one that will occur in September—enough Republicans will defect from Bush’s “victory at any cost” position that anti-war forces will finally obtain a veto-proof majority.  

In the meantime, what was most distressing about the May 24 war appropriations compromise was the tepid language about holding the Iraqi government accountable for meeting specific milestones. In December, the Iraq Study Group report observed, “There is no action that the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq.” The Iraq Study Group report highlighted the milestones proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki; the bulk of these should have been met by May 2007, but so far none have been accomplished. Nonetheless, the May 24 appropriations bill lets President Bush waive consequences for the Iraqi government’s continued failure to meet their commitments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that there’s no there, there: the Maliki government is incompetent. 

However, in the latest Gallup Poll three quarters of respondents felt that there must be “benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet in order to continue to receive … assistance.” That’s consistent with the May 24 New York Times/CBS News poll that noted that “Thirteen percent [of respondents] want Congress to block all spending on the war … 69 percent … say Congress should appropriate money for the war, but on the condition that the United States sets benchmarks for progress and that the Iraqi government meets those goals.” Nonetheless, Democrats agreed to toothless language regarding these benchmarks because that was the only way to gain Republican support. 

While it’s discouraging to see Congressional Democrats capitulate to President Bush and give him what he wants for the next four months, it’s important to take a long-term perspective. What’s happening in Washington is a battle between two competing views of “success” in Iraq. One is the Iraq Study Group stance that there has to be a political solution and, if the Iraqi government can’t get it together, then the United States should withdraw. The other is the Bush position that there must be military solution, no matter how long it takes. In recent remarks, the president suggested that if the United States left Iraq without “total victory,” Osama bin Laden would turn it into a “terrorist sanctuary” from which al Qaeda would launch attacks against the United States. 

Most Republican presidential candidates have accepted Bush’s perspective: Rudy Giuliani believes “setting an artificial timetable for withdrawal from Iraq now would be a terrible mistake, because it would only embolden our enemies. Iraq is only one front in the larger war on terror, and failure there would lead to a broader and bloodier regional conflict in the near future.” John McCain says, “A greater military commitment now is necessary if we are to achieve long-term success in Iraq.” And Mitt Romney argues, “I want to see us be successful, if at all possible, militarily in backing a central government and military in Iraq.” 

As May draws to a close, two trends are intersecting: one is the decline of public support for the war. The other is strident Republican advocacy of a military solution—coupled with President Bush’s stealth increase in combat forces. Inevitably, these two trends will collide. 

Four months from now, we’re likely to see increased public sentiment against the war and widespread recognition that the Maliki government is incapable of meeting any benchmarks. Meanwhile, President Bush and the main Republican presidential candidates will escalate their rhetoric and dogmatically pursue military “victory.” Sometime in September, anti-war Congressional Democrats will get another chance to restrict funds for the war. Will they have a veto-proof majority by then? Stay tuned. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at