On Iraq, US public trusts neither party

As the war in Iraq escalates, Americans are finding less comfort in political rhetoric.

Pessimistic about prospects for peace, yet wary about walking away from a war that has already cost many lives, the US public seems conflicted and worried about the future of American involvement in Iraq.

Whether the war is "straining the psyche of the country," as President Bush said on Monday, is open to debate. But if nothing else, voters overall seem to reject the certainties offered by both political parties about the proper course of action. They see Iraq as something steeped in shades of gray.

"People don't think Bush has a clear plan for what to do about Iraq. They don't think the Democrats do either," writes American Enterprise Institute polling expert Karlyn Bowman in a recent study of public opinion and the war.

At his news conference on Monday, Mr. Bush staunchly defended his handling of the war, saying that leaving before the job is done would be a "disaster." Yet that is what "a lot" of people in the Democratic party would like to do, he said: get out now.

"They're wrong," said Bush.

At the same time, the president admitted that these are "challenging times," and that the drumbeat of bad news from Iraq is straining America's national mood.

"These aren't joyous times," said Bush.

Some Democrats retorted that with Iraq sliding closer and closer to open civil war, the administration is simply ignoring reality.

"The American psyche isn't the problem," said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, the party's losing 2004 presidential candidate. "The problem is this administration's disastrous Iraq policy."

Political argument aside, it is clear that the US public does not have a very positive view of the US involvement in Iraq.

In an August CNN poll, 60 percent of respondents said that they opposed the war in Iraq while 36 percent said they supported it.

A July Gallup/USA Today poll found that 54 percent of respondents said the war was a mistake.

In historical terms, voter attitudes about the US involvement in Iraq are comparable to the doubts many had about American intervention in the Balkans during the Clinton administration, according to Ms. Bowman of AEI. But they are far short of the positive support generated by the Gulf War of George HW Bush's presidential term.

The sectarian violence of recent weeks has further soured the American political mood. In Washington, there may be a debate over whether Iraq is engaged in a full-scale civil war – in the nation as a whole, a majority of respondents say a civil conflict is already occurring.

Sixty-three percent of respondents to a recent Pew Research poll say that the US is losing ground in its efforts to prevent civil war in Iraq. That represents a significant rise in pessimism from June's comparable figure of 50 percent.

"The optimism generated by the killing of [insurgent leader Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi in June has largely dissipated, especially with regard to the U.S.'s key objectives," judges a Pew Research report released last week.

For instance, the percentage of Americans who say the US is losing ground against the insurgents has risen from 36 percent in June to 45 percent today, according to Pew.

At the same time, there is no clear sentiment in the public as to what the administration's course of action should now be.

Generally speaking, the public wants to withdraw at least some troops. The August CNN poll found 61 percent of respondents wanted to bring some troops home, while 34 percent wanted to keep the same number.

At the same time, there does not seem to be approval for immediate pullout. According to Pew Research, just over half of respondents said they wanted to see a timetable to bring troops home. And Pew respondents were divided over whether Iraq will develop a stable government, with 47 percent saying it would, and 41 percent saying it would not.

In general, the overall poll numbers on Iraq may mask a deep political divide over the issue.

"Both perceptions of progress and opinions about what to do remain highly polarized along partisan lines," concludes the new Pew Research report.

On virtually every question, Republicans are more optimistic about progress in Iraq than Democrats, says the Pew study. "Sizable majorities" of GOP respondents see progress in all areas except in preventing a civil war and reducing civilian casualties, according to the Pew report.

Seventy-two percent of Republicans favor keeping troops in Iraq until the nation has stabilized, for instance, while 65 percent of Democrats favor bringing troops home as soon as possible.

Yet GOP voters are themselves split on some key issues. Among self-described conservative Republicans, 63 percent of respondents said there should be no timetable for withdrawal. Among self-described moderate and liberal Republicans, just 38 percent agree that there should be no timetable, according to Pew.

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