Many, many people are waxing quizzical over poll numbers showing a decline in support for the war in Iraq since the November election, among them; Oxblog, Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, and Andrew Sullivan.
Oxblog asks “Why were the American public so much more confident on Bush on election day? The media have generally presented the post-election battle in Fallujah as victory for our side. There have been a lot of major bombings, but we had those in October, too.”
Kevin Drum makes the understandable point that Americans don’t like seeing Americans killed, and the longer that goes on the less support there is. “But there is a continuing insurgency, frequent terror attacks, the same old Islamic infighting, American soldiers getting killed and wounded by the thousands, and no real hope that it’s going to get any better ? even though the administration keeps suggesting that the next operation will settle things down for sure.”
Aside from Drum’s Chicken Littlesque sentiment that “American soldiers getting killed and wounded by the thousands…”–as if thousands of casualties are being incurred daily–his explanation is as good as any, especially given the extensive media coverage that reverses in the Iraq campaign receive. This is not entirely the fault of the media, though certainly more attention could be give to things like Arthur Chrenkoff’s “Good News from Iraq“.
Wars by their very nature generate tons of bad news. People die. Leaders make mistakes. The enemy turns out to be more canny/tougher than first suspected. Time and time again, assurances that “The war will be over by Christmas…” turn out to be a hollow mockery of the truth, a naive belief harshly repudiated by events on the battlefield.
In a conventional war, like WW II, bad news gets balanced out. News of a setback at Guadalcanal are eventually balance out by news of victory on Guadalcanal. In guerilla wars, like the one in Iraq, the balance gets thrown off, as there are fewer success stories to balance out bad news. Once one has physically conquered a country, there are no “Marines Take Henderson Airfield” type headlines to balance out news like “Suicide Bomber Kills 22 in Mess Tent”. Positive results that do manage to get reported fall along the lines of “So and So Many Insurgents Killed Or Captured,” or “Soldiers Uncover Weapons Cache.” All well and good, but when it comes right down to it neither story possesses the sheer above the fold readability that setbacks like “22 dead” do.
In a guerilla war, for an occupying power like the U.S. in Iraq the vast majority of good news happens at the beginning and then again at the end of the war, should that power have the patience needed to see the conflict through. During the middle of the campaign, the nature of the war being waged almost guarantees that stories about reversals in the struggle will dominate the news cycle.
Some members of the media may realize that patience is the key to winning in Iraq, but as a whole the conventional media is a very bad tool when it comes to preaching patience, regardless of how the media as a whole views the conflict in the first place.
Which brings me to my take on the drop in poll numbers. Josh Marshall asserts that “many Bush supporters simply couldn’t take stock of the full measure of the screw-up in Iraq during the election because doing so would have conflicted their support for President Bush. Iraq and the war on terror so defined this election that support for the war and the president who led us into it simply couldn’t be pried apart.”
The reason “support for the war and the president who led us into it simply couldn’t be pried apart” was not due to the blind partisanship of the Bush supporters, but rather to the dovish ineptness of the Kerry campaign. In November, thanks to the continued Democratic embrace of the anti-war Left, many American voters held the perception that, when it came to Iraq, they were not faced with a choice between differing strategies for winning the war so much as they had been given the decision to either continue the war or to abandon the effort completely.
Since the end of election, now that the biggest threat to bringing the war in Iraq to a successful conclusion has been defeated, American forces have been given at least another four years in which to succeed. Bush supporters no longer need to hold their tongues when it comes to critiquing the administration’s conduct of the war. Frankly, in many minds, to have done so before November 2nd would have been nothing more than giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Once the election was over and the future prosecution of the Iraqi campaign assured, debate over how it should proceed could began again, as Andrew Sullivan noted.
Well, they said they’d voice their real criticisms once the election was over. And Bill Kristol comes through today with a stinging piece in the Washington Post on Rumsfeld.
Kristol’s piece on Rumsfeld more or less opened the floodgates of criticism from the Right on the war. The sheer novelty of the “criticism from conservatives” storyline attracted major media coverage, and–surprise!–five days later the Washington Post detects an increase in those who think invading Iraq was a mistake–though significantly 58% of the respondees think that U.S. forces should remain in that country until civil order is restored.
That 58% is the only number the Bush administration need pay attention to, though it could be argued that as long as George Bush decides to stay the course, poll measuring the attitudes of the rest of America are redundant, at best.
Carping from the sidelines is the American passion when it comes to foreign affairs. The Washington Post poll numbers are a reflection of that passion. Now that America has assured itself that the war in Iraq will go on, we can indulge ourselves by critiquing the every move of the administration we chose to lead it.