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The 30 Out of 100

4:26 PM, Mar 20, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Over at The Danger Room, Noah Shachtman asks how on earth Americans might describe the war in Iraq as "going well," as 30 percent of Americans did last month in response to a survey by the Pew Research Center. No one can speak for those folks, and short of a follow-on survey by Pew, we just won't know what they were thinking. But I'll take the bait.

The first explanation is the easiest, and it fits best with our timeline: there is likely a substantial portion of the American public that understand Iraq to be the central front in the war on terror. Within that context, the sacrifice of so many men and so much materiel is not viewed as disproportionate to the threat we face from the likes of al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq. To these folks, and count me among them, "going well" means it's well enough that the United States military is there killing and capturing bad guys day in and day out, and "not going well" would mean the humiliation of a Congressionally mandated defeat and retreat and a correspondingly emboldened al Qaeda. Dean Barnett captured this sentiment writing today on the four year anniversary of the war.

Is the fight hard? Of course. But lamenting its difficulty makes about as much sense as ruing the challenge of invading Normandy. The war against Radical Islam is one of necessity, not one of choice. It's been going on since 1979, and we got a taste of what a defensive posture will bring us on 9/11. Just a taste.

Because this survey was done in the second week of February--the Baghdad Security Operation was only announced at the end of that week on February 14--the 30 percent cannot be explained by the recent progress in Iraq. In light of that progress, and the installation of a new commander in Iraq, I imagine that the 30 percent figure would see a significant bump if the same sample was polled again this week. The president's new strategy, and the early signs of progress, have surely earned the war in Iraq increased support among the public. Still, prior to the surge, most of my colleagues would have been hard-pressed to describe the war as going well, but I think a cautious optimism has taken hold.

There are also those outside of this country that also might say the war has gone well, namely the 49 percent of Iraqis who prefer "life under the current political system" versus the 26 percent that "preferred life under the previous regime of Saddam Hussein."

But they weren't asked "do you think the war is going well," rather something like "do you think the war is going well compared to the alternatives?" And it is. We have not tucked tail as we did in Lebanon or Somalia. We have not left our allies at the mercy of our enemies, as we did after the first Gulf War and in Vietnam. And though some Americans have paid dearly in this war, defeat would surely come with a higher price. Do 30 percent of Americans understand that the greatest danger this country faces will come from the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces? That's one explanation, at least.

Or maybe they just think the war is going better than the media would have us believe. Perhaps they know someone who has served in Iraq, perhaps that individual has told them that things aren't as bad as we are hearing over here.

But all this is pure speculation, so I called the Pew Research Center and asked: how do these people--the 30 percent--explain their response? I was told that partisanship is the most likely explanation, i.e. that there is sure to be a strong correlation between this 30 percent and the people that support the war. But they don't really know either. They haven't asked respondents why they think the war is going well. Intrigued by Shachtman's question, they said they might be able to provide more information later in the week. Stay tuned.