A new poll from Time makes one wonder if the PR strategies employed both by the White House makes and certain segments of the anti-war movement makes any sense. Americans are more likely to want to maintain or increase troops levels in Iraq more if the situation looks worse, not better (9/4-9/8, PDF, page 22):
83. As you may know, a report about the situation in Iraq by General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. forces, and others is scheduled to be released next week. If the report says that the situation in Iraq is IMPROVING, what should the U.S. do next: should the U.S. increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, keep the same number of U.S. troops in Iraq as there are now, decrease the number of troops in Iraq, or remove all its troops from Iraq? QUESTIONS 83-84 WERE ROTATED.
Keep the same: 32%
Remove All Troops: 17%
DK / NA: 6%
84. If the report says that the situation in Iraq is GETTING WORSE, what should the U.S. do next: should the U.S. increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, keep the same number of U.S. troops in Iraq as there are now, decrease the number of troops in Iraq, or remove all its troops from Iraq? QUESTIONS 83-84 WERE ROTATED.
Keep the same: 27%
Remove All Troops: 22%
DK / NA: 9%
Under the scenario that Iraq is growing worse, support for increasing troops in Iraq is higher, in a statistically significant way, while support for decreasing troops declines in a statistically significant way. However, it has actually been pro-war groups, including the White House, that are arguing that Iraq is showing signs of improvement, while it has been those who oppose the war that have argued Iraq is growing worse. Americans are more likely to want out of Iraq if things are going better in Iraq. Go figure.
The befuddlement over troops levels in Iraq among the public does not end there. The same Time poll asks about residual forces, although the poll really slights the "remove all troops" option (same page in link above):
81. Looking ahead in Iraq, if you had to choose, which of these comes closest to your position: 1. The United States should withdraw all of its troops within the next year regardless of what happens in Iraq after the troops leave. OR 2. The United States should withdraw some troops but leave some troops to train Iraqi forces, conduct raids against terrorist groups and protect American diplomats. OR 3. The United States should keep the same number of troops in Iraq as are there now and continue to fight until there is a stable democracy in Iraq?
Withdraw all troops: 22%
Withdraw some troops: 56%
Keep same: 20%
DK / NA: 2%
I think throwing the ominous "regardless of what happens in Iraq after the troops leave" clause is a clear negative description of the position, especially since the options were not rotated in this poll and it was followed with an apparent compromise solution. This is one reason why the Time poll shows very different numbers from other polls asking essentially the same question, but in a more neutral fashion:
CBS News/New York Times Poll. Sept. 4-8, 2007. N=1,035 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults).
"From what you have seen or heard about the situation in Iraq, what should the United States do now? Should the U.S. increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, keep the same number of U.S. troops in Iraq as there are now, decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, or remove all its troops from Iraq?"
9/4-9/8: Increase 11%, Same 19%, Decrease 35%, Remove all 30%
8/8-8/12: Increase 13%, Same 17%, Decrease 31%, Remove all 30%
7/20-7/22: Increase 12%, Same 15%, Decrease 30%, Remove all 36%
7/9-7/17: Increase12%, Same 18%, Decrease 29%, Remove all 34%
The wording of the Time poll seems to have lopped at least 10% support off the "remove all" option. At the same time, there does appear to be a noticeable trend where support for "remove all" is slowly shifting to support for "decrease the number of troops in Iraq." It would seem that removing all troops no longer holds a plurality of public opinion on Iraq. The cause for this seems to be connected to the findings in the Time poll. Reports of improved conditions in Iraq shift people toward the "remove some" and "keep the same" options, while reports of worsening conditions in Iraq push people toward the "increase troops" and "remove all" options. When Iraq seems to be improving to the public, war opponents seem to move toward simply a reduced force, while war opponents see no need to increase the size of the American force in Iraq. When Iraq seems to be worsening, war opponents move toward removing all troops, and war proponents move toward increasing the number of troops in Iraq.
This results in the most counter-intuitive conclusion of all. The frequent Democratic facilitation of the "Iraq is improving" narrative actually helps those Democratic candidates who want to maintain significant residual forces in Iraq more than it helps anyone else, including the White House. When Iraq is improving, support for withdrawal actually increases, and the plurality position in this country becomes the most commonly held policy among Democratic elites: "the United States should withdraw some troops but leave some troops to train Iraqi forces, conduct raids against terrorist groups and protect American diplomats." When Iraq is seen as worsening, the plurality position in this country is to remove all troops from Iraq, which is the position held by Bill Richardson, the Center for American Progress, numerous bloggers, and others. The "Iraq is improving" narrative does not help the Republican position on the war. Instead, it helps the residual force Democratic position on Iraq, while hurting both the Republican position and the progressive Democratic position. As such, some Democrats have a vested interest in making comments like:
We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, it's working.
We're just years too late changing our tactics. We can't ever let that happen again. We can't be fighting the last war. We have to be preparing to fight the new war.
And this new war requires different tactics and strategies. We've got to be prepared to maintain the best fighting force in the world.
An improved situation in Iraq increases support for troops withdrawal, while also decreasing support for removing all troops. Given that virtually every Democratic plan among 2008 candidates and those proposed in Congress favors the "withdraw some, but leave residual troops" option, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Democrats are not doing a particularly good job of fighting back against the "situation is improving in Iraq" line coming from Republicans. Dong so strengthens their hand, by making their position on Iraq both a plurality nationwide, and a nice compromise between removing all troops and maintaining the status quo.
While I don't agree with it, at least this allows the way Democrats have been acting on Iraq to make a lot more sense.