Five years in Iraq: a deep disquiet in the US

The bottom line may be that many in the US view the Iraq invasion as a mistake they don't want to see repeated.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
In protest: Antiwar activists turned out at Union Station in Washington on Tuesday to mark their opposition to the five years of US military involvement in Iraq.
Faye Bowers
'I just think America tries to govern the world, and it seems like other countries don't do that.... We've just got our noses in too many other people's business.'– Brett Smith of Mesa, Ariz.
Tom A. Peter
Dim outlook: Ben Lem, a cafe owner in the Boston area, sees 'no easy end' to America's involvement in Iraq.
Faye Bowers
SOURCE: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Rich Clabaugh

The Iraq war has been perhaps America's bitterest lesson since Vietnam in the realities of war and geopolitics – profoundly altering ordinary citizens' sense of their country, its essential abilities, and the overall role it plays in the world.

Poll after poll shows that Americans are worried about US troops. They're distressed at the war's rising human and financial cost and are fully aware of the globe's rising tide of anti-Americanism. Most of all, they may be confused – unsure of how the United States got here, uncertain about what to do next, and in doubt about how, and when, the conflict will end.

"It's just become a mess, and I don't think there's an easy end to it, so we're going to end up in a quagmire," says Ben Lem, a Boston-area cafe owner.

The bottom line may be that today many in the US view the Iraq invasion as a mistake they don't want to see repeated. Troubles in Iraq appear to have fed a desire on the part of some ordinary Americans for disengagement with the world.

"We are in a period of rising isolationism, just as we saw a bump in isolationism after the war in Vietnam in the '70s," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, at a Center for Strategic and International Studies seminar in Washington on March 12.

Five years ago, America – as well as Iraq – was a different place. Virtually every major poll showed US majorities in support of military action. For instance, in a March 2003 Gallup survey, 64 percent of respondents said they were in favor of a US ground invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Today, Americans are mixed in their judgments as to whether the US effort will eventually be a success. The public seems roughly split as to whether US troops should come home now or stay until the situation stabilizes.

But on another point, national opinion seems clearer: In hindsight, a majority of Americans view the decision to invade as a mistake. In a February CBS/New York Times survey, 58 percent said the US should have stayed out.

Moreover, interest in and knowledge of the situation in Iraq are declining among US citizens – in part because news coverage is diminishing. Public awareness of the number of US military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August, according to a March 12 study from the Pew Research Center.

"Today, just 28 percent of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war," concludes the Pew analysis.

That does not mean Americans do not support their troops, of course. In fact, unlike the situation during the Vietnam era, there appears to be widespread realization that a small slice of US society – the military – is bearing a disproportionate burden.

"They put their lives on the line, and their lives will be forever changed. Their families' lives will be forever changed," says Sharon Howden of Mesa, Ariz.

Ms. Howden, owner of a landscape-maintenance firm, says the horrors of Iraq and general lack of freedom in the Middle East make her thankful for things in her own life, such as reliable electricity and the opportunity to run her own business.

She suggests the US is spread thin in Iraq, financially and militarily. She knows the image of the US has been tarnished overseas. She's torn about what the US should do now.

"I sometimes wish we could bring [the troops] home and put them on our border to solve our own problems here," Howden says. "But then sometimes it's necessary to help other people."

The US has spent billions of dollars bombing Iraq and then attempting to repair it, adds Brett Smith, a Mesa jewelry retailer. Yet major US cities are themselves wrecks, he says, and homelessness is chronic.

"I just think America tries to govern the world, and it seems like other countries don't do that.... We've just got our noses in too many other people's business," Mr. Smith says.

Americans are generally wary of foreign entanglements and worry about the ramifications of long-term commitments overseas, concludes an analysis of public opinion on Iraq by Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Thus many polls show that US citizens might support increased involvement in Iraq by the United Nations, or an expansion of the coalition of nations helping the US.

But if nothing else, the war in Iraq may have heightened the awareness of Americans about the problems of the rest of the globe.

That is what Boston pediatrician Andy Radbill says has happened to him, in any case.

"In general, it has made me more aware that there are a lot of countries around the world where people are treated very poorly by their governments," Dr. Radbill says. "It's hard to say that we have no responsibility to care about that."

Tom A. Peter in Boston and Faye Bowers in Mesa, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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