Pressing Issues: public opinion on war needs probing

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By: Greg Mitchell

There is a strange disconnect in America at the moment, with the press partly to blame but in the position to do something about it, or at least explain it. You may be surprised to learn that nearly 6 in 10 Americans feel the Iraq war is “not worth it,” according to a recent Gallup poll. Exactly 50% feel that President Bush “deliberately misled” them on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and virtually the same number call the war an out-and-out “mistake.” More than 56% now say the war is going badly for the United States. Gallup also recently found that 46% of those polled

say we should start withdrawing troops.

Yet there are few marches in the streets (or anywhere else), and even fewer editorials in major newspapers calling for a phased pullout or setting a deadline for withdrawal. But that’s not my main concern here. No matter where you stand on the Iraq war, you’ve got to wonder: What’s going on here at home? Yet few in the press have set out to explore this gap between what appears to be wide public anger and apathy: the enormous number of Americans who support our troops while, at least indirectly, devaluing their service by claiming this is a war not worth fighting.

For months, E&P Online has tracked various Gallup polls on this subject, and watched the numbers rise and fall. After the Iraqi elections in January, public opinion briefly shifted in a more positive direction, but that was quickly reversed with a return of wide violence and a rising American death toll this spring. Yet despite all the front-page coverage and punditry in the papers, it still seems that the war, and any deep feelings about it, are stuck in slow motion, or in quicksand.

That’s why every week when we consult Gallup, I’m always surprised to find the growing public doubts about the war. Most of the time, in our work and play, you’d hardly know a war was going on. There is more opposition to this war than there was in 1968 with regard to Vietnam, yet far less public and editorial protest. That 57% of Americans say the war is “not worth it” is haunting: such clarity, and such acceptance.

But still, the media continue to look at opinion on the war in a black-or-white, red state/blue state way, when it is much more complicated than that. With so little exploration of this public ambivalence or ambiguity in the press, I turned to an expert, Dr. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

He seemed a bit perplexed himself, saying that it may be “unknowable why they think the war is not worth it. … You can say it’s not worth it without getting emotionally involved” ? that is, if you don’t have a son or daughter serving over there. Pondering it a while, he explained that “short term, they don’t think it’s going well.”

Then he brought up a more compelling point, mentioning that on several occasions his organization has asked their sample if they think the war will leave the Iraqis better off. Here a majority say yes. So Americans seem to buy the notion that our invasion may be “worth it” for the Iraqis, but not for us.

Americans “are essentially doing a cost/ benefit analysis,” Newport said, weighing what the United States may gain versus what we will certainly lose (many more casualties, world prestige, and so on). The verdict: The war is not “worth it.”

Well, that’s part of the “unknowable,” anyway. But why so little public and editorial protest, given the poll numbers? Newport offered the standard explanation: unlike with Vietnam, there is no draft, and comparatively fewer young Americans are coming home in boxes. But this means the press, despite its ample news coverage, often seems to feel that concerns about the war lack a certain … salience, unlike, say, the debates over Social Security or judicial appointments.

But Newport disagrees: “I believe it’s more important in people’s minds than many think it is. It’s incredibly important to people, a sleeper issue, perhaps on the verge of a tipping point.” He pointed out that Iraq shows up as the No. 1 issue in every poll. In a recent survey, people were asked what subject they would bring up if they got to spend 15 minutes with the president, and Iraq easily ranked at the top.

“The average Joe or Jane is very concerned about Iraq,” Newport observes. “They may be saying, ‘don’t fix Social Security or worry about judicial appointments, but do something about Iraq.'” He adds, “You know, we found the approval rating for Congress is now very low, about 35%. Maybe that’s because people feel Congress is arguing over things they don’t care about when you have a war going on.”

He didn’t say it, but I will: You might say the same thing right now about too many editorial pages.

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