The news from Iraq worsens

Dateline: 15 August 2007

As the news from Iraq worsens, panic starts to set in.

A major paper conducts a poll which shows a dramatic shift of opinion. The shift is so big that the paper doesn’t publish the results and commissions a new poll instead. When the new poll confirms the results they publish, but bury the story on an inside page and describe the shift as “modest”.

Meanwhile a leading politician publicly worries about what General Petraeus may say in his report in September. If the report is as bad as he fears “it could be a real big problem”.

What is this bad news that a major newspaper fears so much that it buries it? What is the bad news that a House leader fears could be such a problem? It seems the surge is working. It is early to draw any conclusions. Violence in Iraq varies by season for reasons of both religion and climate. But we can firmly say this: those who declared the surge a failure before the additional troops even arrived were more than a little premature.

The poll was commissioned by the New York Times. It seems retrospective support for the March 2003 intervention in Iraq rose from 35% to 42% - that’s a rise of one fifth. Opposition to the policy remains very high: falling from 61% to 51% - a fall of one sixth. Plainly it still means the war is unpopular, but the movements are more than just modest. If, for example, one in six current readers of the New York Times abandoned the paper over a period of eight weeks, the editor might regard the bad news as more than just modest. If Hillary Clinton’s polling numbers, or Barack Obama’s, rose by a fifth in two months it would be front-page news – and I am betting that the poll would not have needed checking.

So, what happened? Are these shifts within the margin of error? Almost. It is possible that the previous figure of 35% was actually anywhere from 32% to 38%. The July figure of 42% could have been anything from 39% to 45%. But the first figure was consistent with a series of polls the Times has been conducting regularly and the second figure they checked. So it looks as though the shift was real.

But if public opinion is shifting, and in the opposite direction to the one the Times would prefer, why might that be? Well, the paper, to its credit, recently published an account of the military situation in Iraq by two critics of the administration who conceded that, militarily, things are going quite well. They report that the morale of the American military is high and that the Coalition is close to crippling al Qaeda in its Anbar stronghold.

This is what has House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn starting to panic. What if General Petraeus reports that the surge is working? It had previously been assumed, by all sides, that his September report would be mixed. At that point Democrats in Congress could declare the policy a failure and cut off all support to the troops. But now it looks as though he might report significant progress. It becomes hard to abandon a strategy in the face of such a report. Clyburn fears that Democrats might be split down the middle, as they were in 2003, while Republicans remain united.

America wins, but Democrats look divided. That’s what Clyburn considers “a real big problem”.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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