The Soldiers Speak. Will President Bush Listen?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
York Times" -- --
When President Bush held a public meeting with troops by satellite
last fall, they were miraculously upbeat. And all along, unrepentant
hawks (most of whom have never been to Iraq) have insisted that
journalists are misreporting Iraq and that most soldiers are gung-ho
about their mission.
Hogwash! A new poll to be released today shows that U.S. soldiers
overwhelmingly want out of Iraq ? and soon.
The poll is the first of U.S. troops currently serving in Iraq,
according to John Zogby, the pollster. Conducted by Zogby
International and LeMoyne College, it asked 944 service members,
"How long should U.S. troops stay in Iraq?"
Only 23 percent backed Mr. Bush's position that they should stay as
long as necessary. In contrast, 72 percent said that U.S. troops
should be pulled out within one year. Of those, 29 percent said they
should withdraw "immediately."
That's one more bit of evidence that our grim stay-the-course policy
in Iraq has failed. Even the American troops on the ground don't buy
into it ? and having administration officials pontificate from the
safety of Washington about the need for ordinary soldiers to stay
the course further erodes military morale.
While the White House emphasizes the threat from non-Iraqi
terrorists, only 26 percent of the U.S. troops say that the
insurgency would end if those foreign fighters could be kept out. A
plurality believes that the insurgency is made up overwhelmingly of
discontented Iraqi Sunnis.
So what would it take to win in Iraq? Maybe that was the single most
depressing finding in this poll.
By a two-to-one ratio, the troops said that "to control the
insurgency we need to double the level of ground troops and bombing
missions." And since there is zero chance of that happening, a
majority of troops seemed to be saying that they believe this war to
This first systematic look at the views of the U.S. troops on the
ground suggests that our present strategy in Iraq is failing badly.
The troops overwhelmingly don't want to "stay the course," and they
don't seem to think the American strategy can succeed.
It's tempting, but not very helpful, to repeat that the fatal
mistake was invading Iraq three years ago and leave it at that.
That's easy for a columnist to say; the harder thing for a policy
maker is to figure out what we do next, now that we're already
I still believe that while the war was a dreadful mistake, an
immediate pullout would also be a misstep: anyone who says that Iraq
can't get worse hasn't seen a country totally torn apart by chaos
and civil war. Mr. Bush is right about the consequences of an
immediate pullout ? to Iraq, and also to American influence around
But while we shouldn't rush for the exits immediately, we should lay
out a timetable for withdrawal that would remove all troops by the
end of next year. And we should state clearly that we will not keep
any military bases in Iraq ? that's a no-brainer, for it costs us
nothing, but our hedging on bases antagonizes Iraqi nationalists and
results in more dead Americans.
Such a timetable would force Iraqis to prepare ? politically and
militarily ? to run their own country. The year or two of transition
would galvanize Iraqi Shiites to find a modus vivendi with Sunnis
while undermining the insurgents' arguments that they are
nationalists protecting the motherland from Yankee crusaders.
True, a timetable is arbitrary and risky, for it could just
encourage insurgents to hang tight for another couple of years. But
we're being killed ? literally ? because of nationalist suspicions
among Iraqis that we're just after their oil and bases and that
we're going to stay forever. It's crucial that we defuse that
For now, we've become the pi of Iraqi politics, something for
Iraqi demagogues to bash to boost their own legitimacy. Moktada al-Sadr,
one of the scariest Iraqi leaders, has very shrewdly used his
denunciations of the U.S. to boost his own political following and
influence across Iraq; that's our gift to him, a consequence of our
myopia. And many ordinary Iraqis are buying into this scapegoating
of the U.S. Edward Wong, one of my intrepid Times colleagues in
Baghdad, quoted a clothing merchant named Abdul-Qader Ali as saying:
"I can tell you the main reason behind all our woes ? it is America.
Everything that is going on between Sunnis and Shiites, the
troublemaker in the middle is America."
Will a timetable work? I don't know, but it's a better bet than our
present policy of whistling in the dark. And it's what the troops
favor ? and they're the ones who have Iraq combat experience. It's
time our commander in chief stopped stage-managing his troops and
listened to them.
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