Has it really been five years since the advent of Operation Iraqi Freedom? The war has gone on far too long, and been far too expensive. The mistakes made in the crucial transition period from major combat operations to “Phase Four” stability operations will be reviewed and debated for decades. Likewise with the judgment calls regarding political development. Also: The response to the developing insurgency was sluggish, and the length of time it took to move to a successful counterinsurgency strategy was regrettable. Hopefully the lessons learned will keep this from happening again, though most of the lessons had already been learned at great cost in earlier conflicts, and forgotten or ignored.
But as the president pointed out in his Iraq-war anniversary speech at the Pentagon Wednesday, the comprehensive “surge” strategy has been working. All the significant metrics have been moving in the right direction — attacks on Coalition forces, civilian deaths, IED explosions, all have declined dramatically since last summer. Coalition casualties have also dropped. The surge has been a runaway good-news story. And there is no more certain sign of progress in the war than its disappearance from media coverage. Stories on Iraq comprised only 3 percent of the news in the first ten weeks of 2008, compared to 23 percent a year ago — an 87 percent drop. “Good news” has turned out to be an oxymoron. No bleed, no lede.
A new Pew Research Center Poll shows a corresponding marked improvement in public perceptions of the war’s conduct. A year ago 67 percent thought the conflict was going badly, but that number has declined to 48 percent. The war has dropped to second place in the list of critical issues for the 2008 election, though this has as much to do with the problems in the economy as the success of the surge. This is true even among progressive activists, whose lack of enthusiasm for the antiwar cause was reflected in yesterday’s sparsely attended demonstrations.
Public opinion inside Iraq has improved conspicuously. According to a February 2008 ABC/BBC survey, 55 percent of Iraqis state that their own lives are going well, up from 39 percent in August 2007. 62 percent give a positive rating to their local security, up 19 points. And only a third want Coalition forces to leave the country immediately, compared to twice that number last August. U.S. public opinion on pulling out of Iraq has showed a similar movement, though in this country the public is now about evenly divided.
But in another critical area of support the public has not rallied. The critical question with respect to public opinion in long-term wars is not approval or disapproval of the conduct of the war on a month by month basis. The major challenge is buyer’s remorse — was the war worth it? If you had it to do all over again, would you? In the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the number of people who thought the war was worth fighting declined fairly steadily, regardless of the fluctuations in approval of the war’s conduct. The war in Iraq has followed a similar dynamic. For the first two years more thought the war worth fighting than not. For the next eighteen months opinions were basically balanced. Since then support for the enterprise has dropped further, standing now at 38 percent.
The war in Iraq has achieved its strategic purpose, whether the public believes it was worth it or not. Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat, and Iraq has a new constitution and a democratically elected government. Movement has been slow on the priorities we have sought to impose on the Iraqis as “metrics of progress,” namely laws governing distribution of energy revenue and federalism. But these are very difficult issues to settle, and the art of democratic governance is not only compromise but also deferring difficult decisions. Ask the Founding Fathers, who punted on the issues of slavery and federalism, leaving them to a later generation to sort out. It was counter productive to include these or any such issues as metrics of progress in the war effort, since we are in no position to dictate terms to a sovereign government we helped create without courting charges of hypocrisy. We cannot very well claim that we helped free the Iraqis in order for them to do what they are told.
Iraq will be remembered as the central achievement — or point of criticism — of the Bush administration, a controversial legacy the full impact of which will continue to develop long after he leaves office. It was intended to reshape the Middle East, and has, though the revolution seems to have stalled. The five-year war sucked up energy, resources and political capital that could have been devoted to other initiatives in the region. Now Iran is able to pursue a nuclear capability virtually with impunity, U.S. policy statements to the contrary notwithstanding. The attentions of the foreign-policy apparatus are currently devoted to a quixotic quest for a settlement of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a malady that seizes administrations in their final years. And in the war on terrorism discussion is increasingly shifting to Afghanistan, the formerly forgotten front now being recalled. These and other developments are sure signs that the Iraq war is nearing its practical conclusion. In long-term, low-intensity conflicts such as this, victory arrives months before anyone notices, if they notice at all.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.