If this is the right track, don't show us the wrong track

Published September 23, 2004 9:47PM (EDT)

One of the more fascinating moments of today's White House press conference with Bush and Allawi came when the president, who claims to pay scant attention to public opinion polling (that's something Clintons do), referred to "right track/wrong track" polling in Iraq like he was George Gallup himself:

"Q Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister, I'd like to ask about the Iraqi people. Both of you have spoken for them today, and, yet, over the past several months there have been polls conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, by the Oxford Institute and other reputable organizations, that have found very strong majorities do not see the United States as a liberator, but as an occupier, are unhappy with American policy and want us out. Don't the real voices of the Iraqi people, themselves, contradict the rosy scenarios you're painting here today?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me start by that. You said the poll was taken when the CPA was there?

Q One poll --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Okay, let me stop you. First of all, the Iraqi people now have got Iraqi leadership. Prime Minister Allawi and his cabinet are making decisions on behalf of the Iraqi people. Secondly, I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America. (Laughter.) It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future."

From the parenthetical "laughter" on the transcript, Bush apparently finds something to chuckle about here. But the situation in Iraq is no laughing matter. And does Bush really want to remind us that many Americans think he is taking us off a cliff -- a point illustrated by this morning's WSJ poll? That's probably not what Karl Rove set out to achieve today.

But back to the right track-wrong track. A survey of Iraqis from late August showed that more than 51 percent felt their country was headed in "the right direction," up slightly from a May/June poll taken before the "handover." (Comparatively, a U.S. poll from late September showed 44 percent saying we're heading in the right direction, 52 percent said we're on the "wrong track.") Maybe Iraqis are slightly more bullish about their future since the "handover" date in late June. Pre-handover polling showed that 92 percent of Iraqis saw coalition forces as occupiers -- only 2 percent saw them as liberators, and more than half thought Iraq would be safer if coalition troops left altogether. Maybe what limited power the Iraqi interim government has now (the U.S. is of course still running the show ) has made some Iraqis vaguely more hopeful. Their resilience and optimism is remarkable and admirable given what's taking place there. But for the man who started this war to brush past the violent reality of life in Iraq and the grave concerns of Iraqi citizens with a flip remark about "right track/wrong track" polling is just bizarre and desperate. Or as Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said in response: "Did Bush really just say this?"

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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