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“Same Old Question, Different Answer”

That’s the title of this report in the New York Times. The Times did some polling on Hillary Clinton, in the course of which they asked the same question about Iraq that they’ve asked many times before: “Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the United States have stayed out?” A funny thing happened; the numbers seemed to be moving:

Forty-two percent of those polled said the United States did the right thing, and 54 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. The last time the question was asked, in May, 35 percent said taking military action against Iraq was the right thing and 61 percent said the United States should have stayed out.
The July numbers represented a change. It was counterintuitive.

Counterintuitive, indeed. The Times thought its antiwar campaign was going better than that. To be fair, though, the Times notes that other numbers that one might have expected to move together with this one–most notably, level of support for the “surge”–stayed about the same. So the paper ran the poll again, the same question but without the Hillary context. And the answer came back the same: the percentage of those saying that we did the right thing by toppling Saddam is growing.
I can’t explain why related measures of approval of what we’re doing in Iraq aren’t showing similar improvement, but I would offer two observations about these data. First, I think it’s extraordinary that, despite the monolithically negative news coverage the war has received for the past several years, nearly half of Americans still think we did the right thing. That can only be explained by the fact that lots of people have access to alternative sources of information about the war–family members who are in the military, on-line reporters like Michael Yon, and so on. Second, when Americans fight, they fight to win. Aggressive strategies are popular; passive strategies are not. I can’t explain why support for the “surge” doesn’t seem to mirror the “did the right thing” results, but it’s not surprising that a more aggressive strategy, one more visibly committed to victory, garners more support, and I think we’ll see more signs of that support in ongoing poll data, if the hysterically negative tone of most news coverage doesn’t drown out all other information.
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