Most American troops are seeking Iraq exit strategy too

March 07, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Pollster John Zogby says he has been asked by senior military brass to give a presentation at the U.S. Central Command in Florida about his firm's recent poll of American troops in Iraq. Good. The troops have said things their commanders need to hear - including their commander in chief.

Among them: 23 percent of the troops surveyed said they want to stay "as long as they are needed," President Bush's often-stated policy. Seventy-two percent of the respondents said the United States should leave Iraq within the next year, and that included a 29 percent minority who said the United States should pull out of Iraq "immediately."

As soon as the poll was released last week, commentators across the political spectrum rushed to their keyboards and microphones to distort the poll, inflating it or knocking it down to suit their agendas.

For the record, the poll that Zogby International conducted in conjunction with Le Moyne College's Center for Peace and Global Studies did not conclude that most American troops are "begging to get out of Iraq," as one blogger put it.

In a phone interview, Mr. Zogby said: "We didn't ask them, `When do you want to leave?' We asked when did they think U.S. troops should leave." That was wise. If the question were about the troops as individuals, I'd be surprised if most of them did not want to leave "yesterday."

It is also significant to note that the Zogby poll showed Marines and regular Army troops to be more gung-ho about staying in-country indefinitely than reservists and National Guard members, who were called away from their hometowns like draftees.

Yet, with all that in mind, the poll results remind me eerily of ambivalent troop attitudes during the last days of the Vietnam War. I was drafted near the end of 1969. Americans had grown weary of that war by then, including those of us fighting it.

By then, the original mission was a vague memory. America seemed instead to be aimed at some vague goal that President Richard Nixon called "peace with honor." I never saw combat, by sheer luck, but the prevailing mission for many of my fellow troops had become simply keeping themselves and their buddies alive long enough to get home.

I hope the Zogby poll, conducted with the permission of field commanders at five bases in Iraq, does not reveal a similar sense of 11th-hour fatalism in today's troops, even though they appear to have ample reasons to feel that way.

Curiously, an overwhelming 85 percent said the U.S. mission in Iraq is mainly "to retaliate for Saddam Hussein's role in the 9/11 attacks." About 77 percent said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was "to stop Saddam from protecting al-Qaida in Iraq."

That should come as news to President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others who have said there's no credible evidence that Mr. Hussein had any role in 9/11.

Nevertheless, Team Bush often has pushed a double message, putting Mr. Hussein squarely in the middle of the "war on terror." That double message appears to have reached our troops, although not in a way that parrots administration policy. Only 24 percent gave "establishing a democracy that can be a model for the Arab world" as a major reason for the war.

It is more likely our troops are saying that they see themselves as engaged in a long-term war against terrorism and that Iraq is only one battlefront on which America is engaged. That sounds a lot like the way folks in my day saw Vietnam: It was a hot battlefront in our worldwide Cold War against Soviet communism.

Our side lost Vietnam but eventually won the Cold War. Iraq's future looks just as uncertain amid erupting signs of religious and ethnic civil war that have little to do with America's war against al-Qaida. We owe it to our troops to give them the support they need. But the success of their mission ultimately lies with the Iraqis. The longer we stay in Iraq, the more we become an impediment to Iraqi self-rule and targets for violent attacks. Our troops appear to be keenly aware of that. So should the rest of us.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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