Trail Mix: Military Politics

Buried deep inside a recent poll of servicemen and women (and their families), there's a surprisingly frank assessment of the war in Iraq and the commander-in-chief. While the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey showed heavy support for George W. Bush on questions of job approval and general voter support, the military displayed deep concerns about Bush's goals in Iraq.

When asked if the war in Iraq had reduced the risk of terrorism in the United States, 47 per cent said yes while 42 per cent said the risk of terrorism had increased. Added to the 9 per cent who said the war had made no difference, more than half of the active soldiers and their families believe the war in Iraq has failed to live up to Bush's mission--to kill terrorists in Iraq before they kill Americans at home. That wasn't the only disturbing news from the survey. By a narrow margin of 48 to 47 per cent, a plurality of military folks believe Bush has no clear plan to bring the war in Iraq to a successful conclusion. The Annenberg poll also showed that a huge majority (72 to 18 per cent) believed Kerry has no clear plan for success.

Most news reports treated the poll as an indicator of how military families would vote next month, and in that respect the signs are clear: the survey showed a 43 to 19 per cent tilt towards Republicans. On every question, from personal traits to policy in Iraq, Kerry lost out to Bush. Yet the real area of expertise of these voters is not the direction of the general election, but the direction of the war in Iraq. "Winning the war on terror requires more than tough-sounding words repeated in the election season," Bush said in Marlton, New Jersey, on Monday. "Winning the war on terror requires a strategy for victory. Unlike my opponent, I understand the struggle America faces and I have a strategy to win." But it's not at all clear from the Annenberg poll that the military believes Bush possesses a strategy to win, even if they support him personally and still think the war was worth fighting.

Whoever wins on Nov. 2 faces an immediate crisis of confidence in Iraq--among the military overseas, among Americans back home, among ordinary Iraqis and among the allies. Dealing with that crisis means more than the immediate life-and-death struggle with the insurgents in Iraq. It's first a political challenge to maintain and expand support for what looks like an extended exercise in nation-building, or what Dick Cheney has called "standing up" the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Judging from the experience of the Brits, that's a political challenge the leaders of the Coalition are largely failing.

Public opinion on the war in the United States is now almost identical to British views, indicating a steep decline in support for the mission. When asked if the war to remove Saddam Hussein was justified or not, British opinion said no by a 5-point margin (45 to 40 per cent, according to an ICM poll last month). In the United States, when asked if the war was worth it, American opinion was no by a 6-point margin (51 to 45 per cent, according to Annenberg). Those poor numbers have a direct impact on the Coalition's ability to fight the war.

This week Tony Blair's government has been wrestling with an American request to send several hundred British troops out of their zone in southern Iraq to relieve U.S. troops further north, presumably close to Baghdad, to pave the way for an American offensive against the insurgents. When defense secretary Geoff Hoon stood up in Parliament to explain the U.S. request this week, he faced a barrage of questions--from his own Labour party as well as opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats--about what amounts to a small shift in troops. At best, the questioners urged Hoon to convince the American forces to exercise "restraint" in killing civilians. At worst, they accused Hoon of bailing out the Bush campaign with a pre-election offensive in Iraq.

This is the world that the British government inhabits. America's closest ally, the second largest member of the coalition in Iraq, can barely contemplate an American request for help without paying a significant political price. That may be because Britain itself is little more than 18 months away from an expected general election. Yet the politics are still real. In theory, Britain has the capacity to send far more troops to Iraq than its current force of just 9,000. During the initial phase of the war, British forces in the region were running around 40,000. But the chances of sending in more British troops at this critical phase is not even mentioned in London. Small wonder when you consider how controversial it is to move a few hundred troops across Iraq.

That's the background to the shrill exchanges on the campaign trail between George Bush and John Kerry. In New Jersey, the president returned to an exchange in his first debate with Kerry, saying the Democratic challenger "never shows respect" for the Coalition countries. Kerry dismissed Bush's diplomatic efforts in that debate as "not a grand coalition". Previously, Kerry grossly overstated the poor nature of the Coalition as "the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted".

That's about as wrong as describing it as a "coalition of the willing". Whether it's President Bush or President Kerry, the next commander-in-chief will be leading a coalition of the unwilling and the discouraged. Both men say they are determined to beat the insurgents and stabilize Iraq. Before they do that, they'll need to turn around public opinion at home and abroad about the war in Iraq and their strategy for winning it. Victory on Election Day is only the start of the battle for the hearts and minds of the Coalition itself.