NEW YORK — When it comes to the future of Iraq, there is a deep disconnect between those who have firsthand knowledge of the situation - Iraqis and US soldiers serving in Iraq - and those whose impressions are shaped by doomsday press coverage and the imperatives of domestic politics.
A large majority of the American public is convinced that the liberation of Iraq was a mistake, while a smaller but growing number thinks that we are losing and that we need to pull out soon. Those sentiments are echoed by finger-in-the-wind politicians, such as John Kerry, Harry Reid, John Edwards, John Murtha, and Bill Clinton - who supported the invasion.
Yet in a survey last month from the US-based International Republican Institute, 47 percent of Iraqis polled said their country was headed in the right direction, as opposed to 37 percent who said they thought that it was going in the wrong direction. And 56 percent thought things would be better in six months. Only 16 percent thought they would be worse.
American soldiers are also much more optimistic than American civilians. The Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations just released a survey of American elites that found that 64 percent of military officers are confident that we will succeed in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq. The comparable figures for journalists and academics are 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Even more impressive than the Pew poll is the evidence of how our service members are voting with their feet. Although both the Army and the Marine Corps are having trouble attracting fresh recruits - no surprise, given the state of public opinion regarding Iraq - reenlistment rates continue to exceed expectations. Veterans are expressing their confidence in the war effort by signing up to continue fighting.
Now, it could be that the Iraqi public and the US armed forces are delusional. Maybe things really are on an irreversible downward slope. But before reaching such an apocalyptic conclusion, stop to consider why so many with firsthand experience have more hope than those without any.
For starters, one can point to two successful elections this year, on Jan. 30 and Oct. 15, in which the majority of Iraqis braved insurgent threats to vote. The constitutional referendum in October was particularly significant because it marked the first wholesale engagement of Sunnis in the political process. Since then, Sunni political parties have made clear their determination to also participate in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election. This is big news. The most disaffected group in Iraq is starting to realize that it must achieve its objectives through ballots, not bullets.
There are also positive economic indicators that receive little or no coverage in the Western media. For all the insurgents' attempts to sabotage the Iraqi economy, the Brookings Institution reports that per capita income has doubled since 2003 and is now 30 percent higher than it was before the war. Thanks primarily to the increase in oil prices, the Iraqi economy is projected to grow at a whopping 16.8 percent next year. According to Brookings' Iraq index, there are five times more cars on the streets than in Saddam Hussein's day, five times more telephone subscribers, and 32 times more Internet users.
The growth of the independent media - a prerequisite of liberal democracy - is even more inspiring. Before 2003 there was not a single independent media outlet in Iraq. Today, Brookings reports, there are 44 commercial TV stations, 72 radio stations, and more than 100 newspapers.
But aren't bombs still going off at an alarming rate? Of course. It's almost impossible to stop a few thousand fanatics who are willing to commit suicide to slaughter others.
Yet there is hope on the security front. Since the Jan. 30 election, not a single Iraqi unit has crumbled in battle, according to Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who until September was in charge of their training. Iraqi soldiers are showing impressive determination in fighting the terrorists, notwithstanding the terrible casualties they have taken. The route from the Baghdad International Airport, once the most dangerous road in Iraq, is now one of the safest.
This is not meant to suggest that everything is wonderful in Iraq. The situation remains grim in many respects. But the most disheartening indicator of all is simply the American public's loss of confidence in the war effort. Abu Musab Zarqawi may be losing on the Arab street (his own family has disowned him), but he's winning on Main Street. And, as the Vietnam War showed, defeatism on the home front can become self-fulfilling.
• Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©2005 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.