The results from a poll conducted last month by the New York Times so surprised top editors that they ordered a new survey, but the results were the same the second time around: More Americans now think that President Bush was right to send troops into Iraq.
The first poll, conducted July 9-17, found that 42 percent said the president did the “right thing” taking military action against Iraq, an increase of seven percentage points. Editors thought the poll may have been skewed by other questions about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failure to repudiate her 2002 decision to vote to authorize the war.
The second poll, conducted July 21-22, came at the worst possible time for Mr. Bush: A fiercely partisan Congress was debating the war; the Bush administration had just released a report saying the Iraqi government failed to meet many of its benchmarks, and was about to recess for a month; and top Republicans were finally choosing to speak out against the war in Iraq.
But the second survey delivered the exact same results — 42 percent supported the invasion of Iraq. The poll also found that while 66 percent of Americans said things were going badly in Iraq, that number had dropped 10 points from May.
USA Today and Gallup also conducted a survey this month and found positive results for the administration: The number of Americans who think the president’s decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq — the so-called “surge” — is “making the situation better” rose to 31 percent from 22 percent a month ago.
“It’s happening because, for the last several weeks, the news media has had to report military progress in Iraq,” said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House. “I think the public had arrived at the conclusion that we were losing or that we couldn’t win over there, based on the constant bad-news reporting for years, so when you get some good news, it causes some people to say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this is winnable and maybe we should be patient.’ ”
The apparent success of the new strategy implemented by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is having an effect. While 73 U.S. soldiers died in July, that was the lowest death rate in eight months. U.S. newspapers are starting to report from provinces across Iraq — including some deemed irretrievable — that the security situation has improved dramatically.
“There is no question that there have been very substantial and significant changes since the new strategy has been implemented by Gen. Petraeus,” said Clifford May, president of the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on counterterrorism.
“A lot of people think it’s merely a surge, more troop numbers; that’s very far from reality. It’s 180 degrees from what Petraeus‘ predecessors were doing in Iraq and is much more a classic counter-insurgency strategy and it is having a huge impact. … Al Qaeda is being crushed,” Mr. May said.
The increased support for the president’s Iraq policy in recent polls mainly reflects Republicans returning to a sense of optimism about Iraq, but also from independents who reject congressional Democrats’ calls for a quick U.S. withdrawal.
“Independents do not want America to accept defeat … and believe that if we can salvage something from this mission, we should do so,” Mr. May said.
Pollster John Zogby, who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, sees the shifting polls as simply a return of a few Republicans that means little for the president’s efforts to persuade Americans that Iraq is salvageable.
“This comes under the category mainly of Republicans and conservatives who want to believe. They have wanted to believe, but they haven’t had a reason to. You are starting to get more reports — more spin, call it what you like — from White House spokesmen, and some independent analysts, Michael O’Hanlon for example, suggesting that, ‘Hey, this could be working’ and that the number of U.S. causalities has declined,” Mr. Zogby said.
Mr. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, both scholars with the Brookings Institution, penned a New York Times op-ed column last month titled “A War We Just Might Win,” in which they wrote that they were “surprised by the gains we saw” during a visit to Iraq: “Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms.”
But Republican pollster Frank Luntz saw less to cheer in the changing polls. “Maybe it’s just a lack of bad news. At a certain point, the president’s popularity had to stop falling,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a re-examination of the war” but just general summertime optimism.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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