The Magazine

The Turn

Defeatists in retreat.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Hot July brings cooling showers, / Apricots and gillyflowers, as Sara Coleridge's doggerel has it. But for the American antiwar movement, this July brought only a cold drizzle, wilted blossoms, and bitter fruit.

For the Iraq war's opponents, July began as a month of hope. It ended in retreat. It began with Democratic unity in proclaiming the inevitability of American defeat. It ended with respected military analysts--Democrats, no less!--reporting that the situation on the ground had improved, and that the war might be winnable. It began with a plan for a series of votes in Congress that were supposed to stampede nervous Republicans against the continued prosecution of the war. It ended with the GOP spine stiffened, no antiwar legislation passed, and the Democratic Congress adjourning in disarray, with approval ratings lower than President Bush's. It began with Democratic presidential candidates competing in their antiwar pandering. It ended with them having second thoughts--with Barack Obama, losing ground to Hillary Clinton because he seemed naive about real world threats, frantically suggesting that he would invade Pakistan.

July also began with the liberal media disparaging the troops. It ended with the liberal media in retreat. The New Republic had to acknowledge that its pseudonymous soldier's account of an incident purportedly showing the dehumanizing effects of the Iraq conflict was a lie: It had taken place in Kuwait (if it happened at all), before this imaginative private ever saw the horrors of war. The New York Times was so shocked to discover in late July that public opinion hadn't continued to move against the war that it redid a poll. The answer didn't change.

This last incident, though minor, is revealing. On July 24 the Times reported that a new survey had found an increase in the number of Americans retrospectively backing the liberation of Iraq:

Americans' support for the initial invasion of Iraq has risen somewhat as the White House has continued to ask the public to reserve judgment about the war until at least the fall. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted over the weekend, 42 percent of Americans said that looking back, taking military action in Iraq was the right thing to do, while 51 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. . . . Support for the invasion had been at an all-time low in May, when only 35 percent of Americans said the invasion of Iraq was the right thing and 61 percent said the United States should have stayed out.

In the Times's view, as explained on its website, this result was "counterintuitive"--so much so that the editors had the poll repeated to see whether they had "gotten it right." Turns out they had.

As the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto commented: "Well, two cheers for the paper's diligence, but this also seems to be about as close as we're going to get to an admission of bias: an acknowledgment that those at the Times are flummoxed that the public is not responding the way they expect to all the bad news they've been reporting."

What's striking is that the Times was flummoxed. In the real world, the news from Iraq had been (relatively) good for a couple of months. General David Petraeus's military success had been followed with striking political achievements in Anbar province. At home, a mood of annoyance at the Bush administration's conduct of the war had started to yield to a realization that we were approaching a choice of paths on Iraq, and that the consequences of embracing defeat would be severe. But that's not the world the Times editors live in. In their world, this is a war that should never have been fought and that has long been irretrievably lost--and everyone should simply accept those settled facts.

In the real world, the public is skeptical of the administration's stance on Iraq--but not overwhelmingly or irretrievably so. Here's what a new Rasmussen poll says: "Twenty-five percent of voters now say the troop surge is working and another 26 percent say it's too soon to tell. A month ago, just 19 percent considered the surge a success and 24 percent said it was too early to tell." This means that 51 percent are now at least open to giving the policy more time. That's up from 43 percent a month ago.

Given the mistakes the Bush administration has made over the past four years, given the real challenges still ahead, given mainstream media bias in general and the lag in public understanding of what has happened in the last three months on the ground in Iraq in particular, these numbers aren't bad. And they're moving in the right direction. The public remains more sensible than much of elite opinion--and more open to new facts.