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Columnists Discuss Public’s Perception on Iraq

July 10, 2007 at 6:15 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: That USA Today-Gallup poll showing Americans strongly favoring a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals is just the latest indication of a steady slide in support for the president’s Iraq policies. For more on that trend, we’re joined by Rekha Basu, a columnist for the Des Moines Register; Rod Dreher, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, who also writes for Beliefnet.com; and Ruben Navarette, a syndicated columnist and editorial writer at the San Diego Tribune.

Rod Dreher, I’d like to ask you — we just heard the numbers, 7 in 10 Americans say they favor removing troops by April; also, 62 percent said they would like to see — that it was a mistake to go to Iraq in the first place. What are you hearing?

ROD DREHER, Columnist, Dallas Morning News: Well, I’m hearing more and more of this sort of thing down here in Texas, which is one of President Bush’s bases, obviously, and even conservatives are saying privately, more and more it’s publicly, that this war is a catastrophe, and it’s going to be a catastrophe for the GOP in 2008.

I think that the war is, at this point, unwinnable. And as long as the president refuses to consider any other option rather than just staying with the course, it’s going to become more and more untenable to stay in Iraq in any way. And I think that you’re seeing more and more Republicans saying this openly, and many more are saying it privately.

GWEN IFILL: Let me be clear about this. You were originally a supporter of the war?

ROD DREHER: I was. I was at National Review in the year marching up to the war. I was a big supporter of the war, and I was wrong. I foolishly trusted this administration, not only its case for the war, but its competence, and I was badly wrong. And I don’t see the reason that we should continue to exacerbate that error by continuing to stay on in Iraq, following a failed policy in a war that we cannot win.

GWEN IFILL: Rekha Basu, you were originally against this war, and you remain so. But you were working in Iowa and Des Moines, where there is so much discussion going on right now among candidates. Today, I guess as you saw, had this from both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talking about this. Have you seen an evolution in the discussion about the war?

REKHA BASU, Columnist, Des Moines Register: I think I’ve seen a real discernible shift, actually, in the way that people are feeling about it. When I first started writing against the war, which was before the war even started, I would say that my mail ran about seven to three in favor of the war. And I think it’s now flipped completely; I think it’s now something like seven against and three in support, which is very interesting, because it sort of mirrors the national numbers that you just showed.

Iowa tends to be a very trusting, very law-abiding state, where people really put their faith in government and believe that government is acting responsibly. Once you elect someone, you entrust them to make the decisions. And I think that Iowans are very afraid of terrorism and initially felt we should get behind this war effort because it was fighting terrorism.

I see increasing frustration on the part of ordinary Iowans, and particularly troop families, who really feel that we’re not getting anywhere, that it’s time to get out, that it’s dragging on endlessly, that troops are being redeployed two and three times, that this was never part of the bargain.

And as far as the presidential candidates go, the Democrats are just drawing huge crowds. And I think the number-one issue that people are concerned with is actually this question of the war. Any time, whether it’s Barack Obama or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton, when they say, “It’s time to get out of Iraq,” you should see the kind of responses and standing ovations that they get. People really, really want to hear that point of view articulated.

GWEN IFILL: Ruben Navarette, you are in San Diego, where there is a big military presence. How has the discussion evolved there?

RUBEN NAVARETTE, Columnist, San Diego Tribune: Well, Gwen, it’s interesting. You would think there might be a bubble here in San Diego with regard to the military you talk about. In a sense, there’s a lot of loyalty to our troops and what the troops are trying to do there.

But I think what you see is that loyalty is limited to the troops. It’s certainly not directed to the administration or these policies anymore. Even here in San Diego, you see a lot of anxiety and a lot of frustration about what’s not being accomplished.

How to leave Iraq

GWEN IFILL: Have you seen that change since you've been there?

RUBEN NAVARETTE: I think there has been a change, but I think the sense that the public has had of discontent with the war actually goes back a while. This isn't really a headline for today; it's been around. It's been this way for about a year or so.

What strikes me is that Bush just doesn't seem to care about this. No matter what Congress is saying, no matter what the public is saying, he's steadfast, he's going to do it, he's going to stay in there as long as he thinks we need to stay there.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this. I'm curious about whether people in your area, in San Diego -- it's not a question of when to go, because even the president now says that there should be a change and there's going to be some withdrawal. The question is, how? And I wonder whether there's a distinction that's being made among the people you talk to between how one goes or whether one goes.

RUBEN NAVARETTE: Yes, I don't think they know how yet. I think most people understand that this is a series of choices, all of them bad. There are no good choices. I think that they're looking for leadership; they're looking for leaders to come forward with a workable plan out of Iraq.

The day that that comes along, they'll be delighted to embrace that. They want out, but I don't think they have worked out the details about what they leave behind once they leave.

GWEN IFILL: Rod Dreher, when you move in circles in Dallas, what sort of sense do you have that people are making a distinction between how one leaves or whether one leaves? For instance, in Washington, there's lots of discussion that there should be some sort of withdrawal, but not a precipitous one. Do people make those distinctions in Dallas?

ROD DREHER: I think they do. I think we're hearing a lot of people -- I certainly am, in the conservative circles I move in -- talking about the need to not rush right out. I'm probably more in favor of leaving more quickly than most of my conservative friends are, but we don't want to leave a huge mess behind.

I think the dividing line is on whether or not people have hope that the United States can make any difference at all in preventing Iraq from going into an even more savage civil war. I am too pessimistic on that; I don't think we can.

Waiting for the September report

GWEN IFILL: Rekha Basu, I want to talk to you about timing, as well. One of the things that the Bush administration has been saying is that we should wait until General Petraeus makes his report in September. Do you sense that there is patience for that? We've seen some senators here in Washington who have said they're not as patient.

REKHA BASU: I sense that there's complete lack of patience with that, actually. I think people are really fed up, and they want it to be over now. And among the people who I talk to and hear from, I don't think it's really that clearly thought out how we should get out.

I think there is, you know, some sense of responsibility towards the Iraqi people that we shouldn't just abandon them to their fate, whatever that is, but I think the sense is that we are making matters a lot worse, that our presence there is provoking a lot more terrorism than stopping it. And so we just need to get out now.

And I think that that's actually why so many people are flocking to hear presidential candidates' ideas about this, because I think they just really want to hear a plan articulated. It's interesting, you know...

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

REKHA BASU: No, I was just going to say that our paper did a poll, the Iowa poll back a couple of months ago, in which we surveyed the public's sentiment about optimism versus pessimism around the country's future and the general direction it was headed in. And 64 percent of Iowans said that they felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction, and the number-one reason for that was the Iraq war.

And if you compare that to 2001, December of 2001, it was exactly the opposite. Three-quarters of the public thought that the U.S. was headed in the right direction and felt supportive of where we were going, in terms of responding to the September 11th attacks. So things have really, really shifted.

Loyalty to the troops

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Ruben Navarette about that. I wonder if in San Diego there have been similar measures taken also of which way public opinion is going that's broader than just anecdotal.

RUBEN NAVARETTE: I think that the sense is, as I said earlier, that we continue to be very loyal to the troops. You're talking about an area of the country where about a tenth of the casualties that we've incurred in Iraq have come from people who were stationed here in San Diego, Camp Pendleton, Marines from Camp Pendleton.

And so it's very difficult to be here in San Diego and not feel an immediate pall over the area and a sense that this is not some detached some war some place that's being fought by somebody else's kids. This is something that impacts this area very dramatically.

But at the same time, I think that there is, again, a general frustration that's discernible. I don't think it's all that different from where it was a year ago, but I don't see Americans finding any exit door. I think that they want leadership on this case.

I don't think Democrats are benefiting from it here, frankly. Not long ago, Hillary Clinton was booed by folks from MoveOn.org here at a convention in San Diego, because they thought she had been too supportive of the war effort. So I don't see a clear benefit for Democrats, either, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any sense, Ruben, again, that there is a -- that the precipitous question is playing out at all, whether there is an argument, especially among military families, that leaving too soon would mean that the people they've lost died in vain?

RUBEN NAVARETTE: I think a greater concern, Gwen, is sort of what happens after we leave. I'm not big on this Republican sound bite that, you know, better to fight the terrorists in Iraq than to fight them here at home. But if you really think about that, if, in fact, the Democrats and others are correct that we've made the situation worse, if there are, in fact, more terrorists now in Iraq than there were before, what's the argument for simply leaving?

The assumption must be that, if we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone. I don't think most San Diegans believe that, and that's why we're ambivalent about this. Again, just lots of bad choices, no easy answers. Unless we can be guaranteed somehow that, if we leave Iraq, they're not going to follow us home, I don't think San Diegans feel comfortable with that bargain.

Anxiety for military families

GWEN IFILL: Rod Dreher, when you talk to individuals, people in Dallas, who may be have loved ones who may be fighting, do you hear that sort of angst, that sort of ambivalence, or do you hear anger?

ROD DREHER: Oh, I hear it both. I think Ruben is exactly right that one reason that a lot of people are afraid to back away from this war is a fear of dishonoring the country and a fear of backing away from the troops.

But I've got to tell you: Next week, my brother-in-law leaves for Baghdad for a 15-month tour in Baghdad, and it's causing incredible anguish and anxiety. We want to be patriotic in my family and all these military families want to be patriotic.

But at the same time, you have to wonder, what is the end game? What is the point here? What is the sacrifice that our loved ones are having to make on the field in Baghdad and our loved ones back home are making? What is it all for? Is it going to make a better Iraq? Is it going to make a safer America?

And I think we've trusted the president for a long time that it was making a difference; I just don't think the trust is there. And a lot of people are wavering, and it's only going to get worse.

GWEN IFILL: Rod Dreher, Rekha Basu and Ruben Navarette, thank you all very much.