Opposition to the Iraq war continues to be a rallying cry on the left. Barack Obama has not only made his opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003 a foundation of his candidacy, but his economic plan is based principally on his ability to repurpose the $12 billion a month spent on the war into other uses -- namely universal health care and other entitlement programs. Both Obama and Clinton claim to have plans to begin withdrawing American troops immediately upon taking office, even if the process as a whole will take 14 to 16 months to complete. But the intent is clear: to remove US combat forces from the major operations that they have been engaged in during the "surge" -- even as these operations have met with great success.
Where does this reflexive opposition come from? It is clear that opposition to the use of American power is at the core of the Democratic party, and it particulary animates primary politics. But data seems to show that opposition to the Iraq war is deeper than just a partisan divide, and that the American people are tired of the war and want it to end. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 63% of Americans believe the Iraq war wasn't worth the price paid, while 49% believe US troops should be brought home "immediately", regardless of the situation on the ground.
These are astonishing numbers given the success of the surge and the precipitous decline in US combat casualties. In February, for example, there were 25 US combat deaths, down 64% from the year-earlier period. Put into perspective, there were over 43,000 deaths from traffic accidents in 2006 -- an average of 3,500 per month. While every combat death in Iraq is a tragedy, these are trained soldiers who have volunteered to be in the fight -- not innocent bystanders. In comparison to any other war -- from World War II to Korea to Vietnam -- the rate of combat casualties in Iraq is phenomenally low.
Thus, the opposition to the war seems out of proportion to the facts on the ground -- and is obviously driven by other forces. My belief is that much of it comes from the undeniable bias of the media that is quick to report on our setbacks while largely ignoring our successes. The picture being painted is unrealistically gloomy and has been for the past three years -- even in the face of progress.
The fundamental story-line on Iraq has not changed since the breakdown in security and the attack on the Samara Mosque in early 2006; most reporting still focuses on sectarian strife, "civil war" and the lack of progress in political reconciliation. All of these issues have been overtaken by events on the ground, where security has been restored and sectarian conflict has been substantially reduced. But that is not a story you are likely to hear in the main-stream media.
My guess is that the Iraq war is going to play against the Democrats in November -- both because the situation will continue to improve, and because John McCain can rightfully take credit of much of the recent success. I know that Americans don't want to lose in Iraq, and when confronted with the reality of our progress will choose to go with the Commander in Chief who can finish the job.
The stakes -- particularly when properly communicated -- are simply to great to fail: a base of terrorism in Iraq on the border of a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. Most Americans know that there is no way we can let that happen. Whether that is enough to sway the election to McCain will largely be determined by his ability to frame the debate and rightly keep us focused on the extreme price of failure.