PHILADELPHIA—The fog of war has settled over the home front.
Bedeviled by the mounting casualties in Iraq and increasingly confused by the mixed messages emanating from war leaders, Americans in large numbers are losing confidence in the mission.
New polls report that, for the first time, a majority of Americans reject President Bush's contention that the war over there is making us safer over here. Indeed, barring major immediate progress in Iraq, 2005 may well be remembered as the year when public opinion went south and never came back—a mood shift roughly analogous to 1968, when domestic confidence in the Vietnam war began its irreversible slide.
There has long been public frustration about the gap between administration pronouncements and battlefield realities; witness Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's prewar prediction that the fighting "could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months," or the fact that 92 percent of all U.S. military deaths have occurred since Bush declared on May 1, 2003, that "major combat" was over.
But for a long time, the restive Americans tended to be Democrats who already disliked Bush or who never bought his war pitch in the first place. What's new today is that frustrations about the war are being voiced by those who backed the mission at the outset. These Americans—as evidenced in interviews by reporters from Texas to New York City during the past week—are increasingly alarmed by the facts on the ground and confused about the best course of action in the future.
Consider Pennsylvanian Eric Zagata. He's from Luzerne, age 24, and he served in Iraq last year, as a member of the 109th Field Artillery's Bravo Battery, until he was injured by shrapnel. He was luckier than the 92 Pennsylvanians slain thus far—in battle deaths, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation, behind California and Texas—but he's a changed man.
"Going into it," he said Tuesday, "I just felt it was my obligation. Now I feel bad. I think we're in such a spot. We can't pull out of there because if we do, it would just be a waste of all our people's lives and all their people's lives. I think it's a real Catch-22."
His sentiments shifted after "seeing all these guys getting killed every day for nothing, really. We went over there and we're fighting this war, and we're still paying $2.40 a gallon for gas. Eighteen hundred people have died, and nothing has been accomplished." (The U.S. military death toll, on Friday, was 1,846.)
Or consider 54-year-old Marcy Price, who was shopping Thursday near Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army's largest basic training center, in South Carolina. She backed the war at the outset, because "I thought that it was very worthwhile—that it was something we needed to do in response to 9/11." However, "I changed my mind because of the length of the war" and because, as she sees it, the Bush administration has failed to show that Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, was a crucial front in the broader fight against terrorism.
These sentiments are reflected in the polling trends. When the war was a year old, in March 2004, roughly 65 percent of Americans were supporting the decision to wage it. But in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, support has sagged to 44 percent. Meanwhile, 57 percent now say that the war has made the U.S. "less safe from terrorism"—a Gallup record high and a key finding because it undercuts a core Bush argument for launching the war in the first place.
Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, an expert on war and public opinion who now teaches at Boston University, said: "At this point, the president has nearly exhausted the extra moral authority that he was granted after 9/11. It's hard for people to accept battlefield deaths when they can't see where a war is going.
"In comparison to World War II, (1,846) deaths is obviously not huge. But in the context of Iraq, with the public having no clear sense of how the mission is going and where it will go—that's why support is systematically eroding. People thought we'd turned a corner when Saddam was captured and again when the January elections were held. People keep waiting for some psychic satisfaction, the big milestone that will point the way forward," he said.
Many have grown weary of waiting. Debby Boarman, a 58-year-old retiree from Evansville, Ind., voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but you'd never know it now. During a visit Wednesday to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, she said: "I don't think he's doing as good a job as he said he was going to do. I don't like the way he is handling (Iraq)—well, he isn't handling (it). ... It's more of a lack thereof."
Bush, of course, can still count on staunch support from millions of Americans, people such as Greg Henning, an Ohioan who was visiting Ground Zero in New York on Tuesday. He said, "If we had done this (war) in the 1990s, I don't think (9/11) would have happened." He sees the Iraq casualties as an acceptable sacrifice, because "if thousands of soldiers hadn't died (in previous wars), we wouldn't have been here right now" living in freedom.
And notwithstanding the attention focused on Cindy Sheehan, who's camping out at Bush's ranch to protest her son's death in Iraq, there are many women like Diane Eggers, a 51-year-old Bush voter from Euless, Texas, whose son Kyle was killed last December. She said: "He supported President Bush because he believed in what (Bush) was doing. There's no good part of any war. ... You just have to go with it. I could be mad, but it's not going to do any good."
But even some Bush-loving Texans are restless. Donna Arp, 54, of Colleyville and the president of a real estate investment company, said Wednesday, "I'd like to see a solid exit strategy," because she and her friends can't get a fix on what's happening. As she put it, "We're unsure if we are winning the war or where we are with it."
The public's growing bewilderment stems in part from the perception that Bush and his war leaders are communicating poorly, and often in contradiction. In the latest poll conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 64 percent say that Bush is failing to articulate a "clear plan" for winning the war, the highest negative share since the start of the conflict. In Bacevich's words, "In the absence of the president making a persuasive case, many people don't know how to judge what's going on there."
After Vice President Dick Cheney said in June that the insurgency was in its "last throes," he was promptly contradicted by Gen. John Abizaid, who told Congress that the insurgency was as strong in June as it was last January, with more foreign fighters pouring in. Then Rumsfeld sought to explain Cheney's remark on "Fox News Sunday": "Last throes could be violent last throes, or a placid and calm last throes."
Then, on July 8, Maj. Gen. William Webster, who heads Task Force Baghdad, said his forces had "mostly eliminated" the ability of insurgents to conduct "high-intensity" attacks; on July 10, insurgents killed 23 at a Baghdad recruiting center.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Time magazine, in an interview released last Sunday, that the insurgency is "losing steam" in the face of "quiet political progress." Yet, on Monday, armed gunmen ousted Baghdad's secularist mayor and replaced him with a member of Iraq's most powerful Shiite Islamic militia.
Nor have the war leaders communicated a clear message about the future. On July 27, U.S. Gen. George Casey, senior commander of coalition forces in Iraq, suggested that a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of troops could begin next spring or summer, if conditions were stable. Rumsfeld raised the possibility of partial withdrawals as soon as the United States is able to "pass over responsibility" to the new Iraqi security forces, a statement that enraged conservatives such as William Kristol, who said the troops should stay until the insurgents are defeated and that anything less was "weakness and defeatism."
On Thursday, Bush at his ranch dampened any talk of foreseeable troop cuts, a message that suggests that the insurgency may not be "losing steam" after all.
David Winston, a Washington Republican strategist who has worked with the White House, was asked about the Bush administration message on Iraq. He didn't state directly that the current message is flawed, but he seemed to imply it: "Over the next year, people will ask, `Are we progressing?' The Iraqi election last January was an important milestone to achieve, to the point where (U.S.) casualties were being tolerated. The White House has to lay out more of these milestones and objectives, to help people judge whether progress is being made—progress that people can believe in."
(Contributing to this story were Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Kellie Patrick, Thomas Fitzgerald, Edward Colimore and Miriam Hill, Sadia Latifi of the Inquirer's Washington bureau, Jessica R. Lopez of The State (Columbia, S.C.), Diane Smith of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Kasia Kopec of the Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre) and Chris Rosenblum and Pete Bosak of the Centre Daily Times (State College).)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050812 USIRAQ ATTITUDES
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POLLS