Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is no fan of opinion polls. But even he couldn’t resist highlighting the Pew Research Center’s latest survey on the Iraq war. In a speech yesterday at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies to explain why success in Iraq is critical for American security, he showed what a strange moment this is — one where President Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld and others in the administration find themselves having to stave off a strain of Washington defeatism that simply isn’t reflected in the opinions of average Americans nor of people with real working knowledge of the on-the-ground situation in Iraq.
The Pew data’s general-public findings show that Americans as a whole haven’t succumbed to political-class pessimism. A majority of Americans are still optimistic about the future of Iraq. The study, released on Nov. 17, found a 56 percent to 37 percent split in the affirmative on the question of whether the United States will ultimately succeed in forging a free and democratic Iraq. Researchers also found that Americans are about evenly divided on the question of whether going to war in Iraq in the first place was a good idea, with slightly more saying yes (48 percent) than no (45 percent) — noteworthy given the context of seemingly unrelenting “no’s” to both questions from Washington. With the public far more favorably disposed to the war than Washington’s current climate would suggest, then, this opens questions about why Washington got so pessimistic in the first place.
Presumably people on the ground in Iraq — Iraqis themselves and U.S. servicemen — would know if the facts warranted it. But both are notably more bullish than the politicians and media. The Pew study didn’t look at Iraqi opinion, but last month, in a study Mr. Rumsfeld did not cite, the International Republican Institute found that 47 percent of Iraqis think the country is heading in a positive direction, compared to 37 percent who said it wasn’t. Fifty-six percent believe that things will improve in six months’ time. That judgment is echoed by military leaders, who are optimistic by a margin of 64 percent to 32 percent and are, by many accounts, downright puzzled by the acrimonious finger-pointing in Washington.
Compare all this to the relative pessimism of the intelligenstia and political classes. Sixty-three percent of journalists think the Iraq effort will fail; so do 71 percent of foreign-policy think-tankers and academics. “Jarring” was the word Mr. Rumsfeld used to describe the contrast between what Americans hear and read about Iraq and what Iraqis actually think. The description is apt. “You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 American casualties over about 40 days; or explain the importance of Grant’s push to Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles,” he said. The same goes for Iraq.
That observation was Mr. Rumsfeld’s segue to what must have been this administration’s most undeservedly gentle rebuke of the media for its coverage of the war. Reporters “have a tough job,” he said, but using “a bombing or a terrorist attack to support a belief that Iraq is a failure … is not the accurate picture” nor “is it good journalism.” He asked: “How will history judge — if it does — the reporting decades from now when Iraq’s path is settled?”
If the current tone of debate in Washington wins out, future generations will wonder how the United States collapsed upon its war effort. They will ask: Where did the defeatism arise? Was it a crisis of will? Was it a political game? They will compare it unfavorably to the relative resilience of World War II, Korea and possibly even Vietnam.
We don’t yet know whether Washington is in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But certainly the jaws of defeat are not agape, except among Washington naysayers. Part of our answer to the contortions will be a series of daily editorials on unreported good news from Iraq — a series which begins tomorrow.