WASHINGTON - June 2 - Despite growing calls from within the foreign policy establishment for a reconsideration of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, most mainstream pundits and commentators continue to argue that the U.S. has no choice but to tough it out. According to a survey of editorial opinion by Editor & Publisher (5/7/04), the trade publication of the newspaper industry, "the vast majority of America's large newspapers favored this approach to Iraq: Stay the course."
But with resistance to the U.S.-led occupation forces showing no signs of fading away, some journalists have cast a worried glance at Iraqi public opinion. Establishing a democratic government responsive to popular wishes is the main rationale for keeping U.S. soldiers in Iraq. So if ordinary Iraqis reject the coalition's continued military presence, defending the mission becomes an increasingly awkward task.
In recent weeks, two important scientific polls of Iraqi opinion have been published, and neither offered much solace for those who support staying the course. A Gallup poll conducted mostly in late March-- before the recent sieges of Fallujah and Najaf-- showed that "a solid majority support an immediate military pullout." (Results at http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2004-04-28-poll-cover_x.htm). Fifty-seven percent said the coalition should "leave immediately" rather than "stay longer" (36 percent).
Among respondents in Shi'ite and Sunni Arab areas-- that is, leaving out Kurdish respondents-- the numbers favoring an immediate pullout were even higher: 61 percent to 30 percent among Shi'ites and 65 percent to 27 percent among Sunnis. In Baghdad, where U.S. forces are concentrated, the numbers were highest of all: 75 percent favored an immediate pullout, with only 21 percent opposed.
Overall, 55 percent of Shi'ites and 57 percent of Sunnis said attacks against coalition forces were at least sometimes justified, while the proportion of Baghdadis who believe this has risen to 67 percent, up from 36 percent the last time Gallup asked them this question a year ago.
Meanwhile, according to a new poll from the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, which is partly funded by the State Department and has coordinated its work with the Coalition Provisional Authority, more than half of all Iraqis-- including the Kurds-- want an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, up from 17 percent last October. The same poll found that 68 percent of Iraqis support Moqtada al-Sadr, including a third who say they "strongly support" him (Financial Times, 5/20/04; Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/9/04).
The polls cited above are the only scientific measures of recent Iraqi opinion in existence. Yet despite these clear signs that Iraqis want U.S. troops out, some journalists have clung to hopes, unsupported by real evidence, that the bulk of the population still quietly supports an American presence.
"For Americans grasping for a reason to stay optimistic about their experiment in Iraq, it may be this," wrote the New York Times' Ian Fisher (5/23/04): "There are still far more people... who are skeptical of, and maybe even hate, the Americans but see them as the only way to save themselves." As evidence for this, Fisher cited a poll. But it was not either of the scientific surveys released by professional polling agencies lately. Instead, it was a tally conducted by Sadim Samir, a 23-year-old political science student at the University of Baghdad, who "canvassed five neighborhoods" of Baghdad for a "class paper."
"The answer that everyone gave was, 'It's been a year, and they have done nothing for us,'" he said. "But after that I asked, 'Do you want them to leave?' And they all said, 'No. It's going to be more chaotic.'" Somehow, Samir apparently found 100 percent of Baghdadis opposed to a U.S. pullout, even though Gallup, with its 3,000-respondent sample size, found 75 percent of them favoring one immediately.
A column from New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman (5/16/04) likewise posited the existence of an Iraqi "silent majority" that firmly rejects al-Sadr. Citing a demonstration held in Najaf to protest fighting between the cleric and American forces, Friedman asked: "Will the silent majorities in both countries [Iraq and Israel] finally turn against these extremist minorities to save their future?"
A USA Today editorial (5/25/04) played dumb about the depth of support for anti-coalition attacks, asserting that "the number of attackers and the extent of their support among Iraqis angry about the U.S. occupation are unknown"-- even though the Gallup poll cited above was conducted on behalf of USA Today and was discussed at length in its pages (4/28/04).
Following the recent cease-fire deal between the U.S. and the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr, Fox News' all-star pundit panel concluded that Sadr lacked genuine popular support (Special Report, 5/26/04). "Al-Sadr is on the run," declared Charles Krauthammer. "The insurgency has failed. He did not have popular support. Sadr was caught between the anvil of Shiia, who didn't like him, who opposed him, and the hammer of American military. And he is powder."
"He said uncle!" chimed in Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. Centrist commentator Jeff Birnbaum agreed with his co-panelists about Sadr's lack of support. None of the men mentioned the Iraqi poll showing two-thirds of the population supporting Sadr. Days later, the cease-fire began faltering.
Although some prominent pundits have become more forthright about the evidence on Iraqi public opinion-- Newsweek writer Fareed Zakaria cited data on support for al-Sadr in a May 24 column-- others continue to appear squeamish about delivering the bad news. Yet as the media continue to report on the purported handover of sovereignty in Iraq this summer, they cannot afford to ignore the only hard evidence about how Iraqis themselves perceive the situation.