The most recent CBS/NYT poll asked people “From what you know about the U.S. involvement in Iraq, how much longer would you be willing to have large numbers of U.S. troops remain in Iraq — less than a year, one to two years, two to five years or longer than five years?” As you can see, virtually nobody in the United States wants to see American troops remain in Iraq for longer than five years. If you put squarely to people a political and strategic choice between a long-term military commitment to Iraq and trying to wrap our involvement up as quickly as is feasible, it wouldn’t even be a close call.
At the same time, everyone who’s paying close attention to what David Petraeus says, or what gets written on the Small Wars Journal Blog, or what the cool kids in the think tanks are saying, or what the Counterinsurgency Field Manual says, understands that the current strategy envisions us being in Iraq for much much longer than the 1-2 years that the American public seems willing to contemplate. In other words, completely apart from the question of whether or not the surge is “working,” the architects of the surge understand themselves to be engaged in an undertaking — setting the stage for over a decade of intensive, Northern Ireland-style policing and reconstruction of Iraqi society — that public opinion overwhelmingly and correctly believes to be an unacceptable allocation of national priorities.
And yet, this fact is being kept pretty well obscured from the American public. Part of the fault there lies with the press. But a big part of the fault lies with the opposition party which is simply declining to present the public with a clear strategic alternative. The nit-picking over whether the fact that conditions in December 2007 are more like those of December 2006 (unbearably shitty!) or more like those of December 2004 (merely awful!) pales in comparison to the fundamental choice of whether our troops should come home within the next year or two, as the American people want, or whether they should stay in Iraq for an indefinite period of time definitely lasting over ten years, as the current strategy indicates.
It’s not a difficult point to make, rhetorically or conceptually, but it would require the opposition party to actually put the “let’s not stay forever” alternative clearly on the table and stop mucking around with half-measures, “residual forces,” “phased transitions” and all the rest. You rarely get 75 percent of the public agreeing on anything, but it’s right there — over 75 percent of the public rejects the idea of a military operation in Iraq lasting more than five years. Meanwhile, the people leading the current operation are talking about it lasting “at least nine or ten years”.
Petraeus is to be commended for his honest and sober-minded assessment of the challenges on that score and it’s genuinely not his job to say whether or not it’s a good idea to make that kind of commitment to Iraq. But it’s not a good idea, and the people whose job it is to make that decision — the politicians, in short — ought to say so and move to cut this thing off.