The D.C. establishment versus American public opinion

By large majorities, Americans distrust Gen. Petreaus' report and, in general, claims about progress in Iraq.


Glenn Greenwald
September 9, 2007 3:57PM (UTC)

(updated below)

The Washington Establishment has spent the last several months glorifying Gen. David Petraeus, imposing the consensus that The Surge is Succeeding, and most importantly of all, ensuring that President Bush will not be compelled to withdraw troops from Iraq for the remainder of his presidency. The P.R. campaign to persuade the country that the Surge is Succeeding has been as intense and potent as any P.R. campaign since the one that justified the invasion itself. While this campaign has worked wonders with our gullible media stars and Democratic Congressional leadership, it has failed completely with the American people.

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Ever since the Surge was announced (and allowed) back in January, Conventional Beltway Media Wisdom continuously insisted that September was going to be the Dramatic Month of Reckoning, when droves of fair-minded and election-fearing Republicans finally abandoned the President and compelled an end to the war. But the opposite has occurred.

Democratic Congressional leaders -- due either to illusory fears of political repercussions and/or a desire that the war continue -- seem more supportive than ever of the ongoing occupation (or at least more unwilling than ever to stop it). They are going to do nothing to mandate meaningful troop withdrawal. Most Republicans are hiding behind the shiny badges of Gen. Petraeus and his typically sunny claims about Progress in Iraq, and they, too, are as unified as ever that we cannot end our occupation.

None of that is notable or surprising to anyone other than our nation's media stars. It has been depressingly predictable (and predicted) for months that Petreaus would descend on Washington in September, hail the Great Progress we are making, and the entire D.C. Establishment -- and more than enough members of both parties -- would meekly fall into line and support whatever scheme prevailed at the time for ensuring that we stayed in Iraq through the end of the Bush presidency. The notion of the "Moderate Congressional Republican" who will stand up to the President has long been an absurd Beltway myth, as was the expectation that Democrats in Congress would ever force the President to end the war.

But what is notable about all of this, if not surprising as well, is that the overwhelming majority of the American people now harbor such intense distrust towards our political and media elite that they are virtually immune to any of these tactics. Several polls over the past month have revealed that most Americans do not trust Gen. Petraeus to give an accurate report about Iraq. And a newly released, comprehensive Washington Post-ABC News poll today starkly illustrates just how wide the gap is between American public opinion and the behavior of our political establishment.

The majority of Americans have emphatically rejected the Beltway P.R. campaign of the last several months, and are as opposed more than ever before to the war. Perhaps most remarkably, in light of the bipartisan canonization rituals to which we have been subjected, a strong majority (53-39%) believes that Gen. Petreaus' report "will try to make things look better than they really are" (rather than "honestly reflect the situation in Iraq").

Moreover, huge majorities continue to believe that the war was not worth fighting (62-36%) and that the U.S. "is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq" (60-36%). Only a small minority (28%) believe the Surge has made the situation in Iraq better, while vast majorities believe it has made no difference (58%) or has made the situation worse (12%). And a sizable plurality continues to believe the U.S. is losing the war (48-34%).

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More significantly still, overwhelming numbers of Americans understand what the D.C. Establishment refuses to accept: namely, that even if there are marginal and isolated security improvements, there is still no point in continuing to stay in Iraq. Large majorities want the number of U.S. troops in Iraq decreased (58-39%); believe overwhelmingly that a decrease should begin "right away," rather than by the end of the year or next year (62-33%); and favor legislation now to compel troop withdrawal by the spring (55-41%).

Yet the "debate" taking place in the Beltway regarding Iraq could not be any further removed from the views most Americans hold, and the war-continuing actions of our political class over the next several weeks will be -- yet again -- in complete defiance of the pervasive belief in this country that it is long past time to end the war. Just as they do with regard to the realities in Iraq, our political class just pretends that these facts about American public opinion are not true. As but one particularly egregious (though representative) example, this is what Fred Thompson advisor Mary Matalin said last week on the Meet the Press:

MS. MATALIN: Yes, because what we're seeing for the first time last week, is a majority of people now support and believe that the war can be won.

Matalin's claim that a majority "believe that the war can be won" is extremely dubious (the Post-ABC Poll found the opposite: that a plurality believes the U.S. will lose the war; only a minority (39%) believes we will win). But Matalin's claim that "a majority of people now support" the war is just an outright lie.

One poll after the next for at least two years has found that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the war and want it to end. But Matalin, a Serious Member in Good Standing of our Beltway Establishment, can go on Meet the Press, sitting there with Tim Russert and her husband and others, and spout lies like this about what Americans think about the war because the D.C. Establishment wants to believe that they are trusted and respected. Matalin also said this about what "Americans believe":

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It does not comport with the critics of the president who say progress is being made, including front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and, and Barack Obama. So people are very nuanced about this. They understand not only that it can be won, but that it must be won. They understand the consequences of defeat. Further, two thirds of them trust -- and nobody more than the generals -- when Petraeus and Crocker come and give their report, that will be the positive time.

These are total falsehoods. Yet The D.C. Establishment, including Democratic Congressional leaders, are wedded to the premise that Gen. Petreaus must not be challenged, that we are making Progress due to the Surge, and that -- whatever else is true -- compelled withdrawal (i.e., withdrawal before George W. Bush wants to withdraw) is irresponsible and dangerous.

In his Washington Post Editorial this morning, Fred Hiatt came as close as he ever has today to admitting that there is no point in continuing to remain in Iraq, rhetorically asking: "If Iraqis are not moving toward political reconciliation, what justifies a continuing commitment of U.S. troops, with the painful sacrifices in lives that entails?" That question answers itself: nothing justifies our ongoing occupation. Yet Hiatt can't bring himself to follow that premise to its logical conclusion: namely, that withdrawal is the only rational option.

The Establishment is so invested in ensuring that the war they created can be painted as a Success, and even more so in the notion that forced withdrawal is something only the Unserious People advocate, that they will never follow their premise (we are doing nothing good in Iraq) to its logical conclusion (therefore we should force Bush to withdraw whether he wants to or not). And the entire leadership strata of our political class, including Congressional Democrats, either shares those premises and/or are far too weak and afraid to defy them. The war thus continues, and the gap between our political class and American public opinion continues to grow.

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In one sense, it is quite unhealthy in a democracy for such a large majority of Americans to so distrust the political and media establishment that they even believe in advance that war reports from our leading General will be nothing more than self-serving and misleading propaganda. But in another, more important sense, when a democracy's political establishment becomes as rotted and deceitful and corrupt as ours has become -- enabling the most unpopular President in modern American history to continue what is so blatantly a senseless war for years and years, in complete defiance of what Americans want -- the one encouraging sign is that a majority realizes how corrupt our establishment is and has stopped believing anything they say.

One of the very few governmental institutions that inspired respect among Americans has been the military, and that is still the case. But anyone who becomes a part of our political class, such as Gen. Petraeus, is inherently distrusted. This war has completely eroded the relationship between our Beltway ruling class and the rest of the country. That would normally be something to lament, but in this case, it is something to celebrate. The Beltway ruling class -- political and media figures alike -- deserves nothing but scorn and distrust. As they spend the next several weeks enabling George Bush to continue this war for as long as he wants, they will earn a lot more of both.

UPDATE: One of the most depressing aspects of this entire Establishment spectacle is how mind-numbingly predictable it all is. Here is what I wrote back in May about what would happen in September. I excerpt this not because I was the only one saying it -- to the contrary, virtually every blogger I read was saying the same thing -- but only to illustrate how dishonest the DC Establishment is in everything they say and do:

The single greatest and most transparent delusion in our public discourse right now -- and that is a distinction for which there is always an intense competition -- is that Something Weighty and Significant is Going to Happen In September with regard to the Iraq War.

September, you see, is the real turning point, the real Day of Reckoning. Finally, our political elites are going to face the cold, hard truth in an unvarnished and hard-nosed way about The Facts on the Ground. That is the read deadline for George W. Bush. No more leniency for him come September. Republicans, Democrats and their pundit and opinion-making comrades alike have all banded together -- strength in numbers -- and boldly decreed: "No More." Either we have Real Progress in September, or that is the end of the line.

That's what one hears over and over from all of our Serious and Sober Beltway denizens -- the ones who advocated the war in the first place and assured us it was going well for the last four years (and therefore have great credibility on such matters). As but just one example, the very serious, sober, smart expert Michael O'Hanlon, bearing the title of Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, was on Fox News yesterday explaining how "smart" the Democrats were for funding the war with no limits because their real opportunity is September, when -- if things are not going well -- everyone will support them in imposing real limits.

But all that is going to happen In September is that we are going to await with bated breath for General David Petraeus -- he of infallible wisdom, judgment and honesty, and unquestionable objectivity -- to descend upon Washington and reveal whether there is Real Progress being made (by him) in Iraq. We are all going to leave partisanship and politics to the side and turn to the source who resides above all of that, the one who can be counted on to speak the Real Truth -- General David Petraeus.

And, needless to say, General Petraeus will, cautiously though emphatically, declare that progress is being made, though there is much work that remains to be done. And therefore we must redouble our resolve and stay until The Job is Done. . . .

And with General Petraeus heralded as the Objective Source of Honor to be Trusted, the White House and Congressional Republicans and Fred Hiatt will immediately proclaim that it would be irresponsible and reckless (and terribly unserious) not to continue with our Great Progress, that we should leave such judgments to the Generals on the Ground, not Politicians in Washington. Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol will warn that anyone who speaks out in dissent at this Important Time of Opportunity is Emboldening Al Qaeda, and General Petraeus will agree.

And in September, when the great (though incomplete) progress is unveiled by General Petraeus, our pundit class will continue their canonization of The General, and thus, that there is Progress in Iraq will be the conventional wisdom which all serious and responsible people recognize ("Finally, after four years of frustration, General David Petraeus, in dramatic testimony before Congress, highlighted the great improvement the U.S. is seeing in its war against Al Qaeda in Iraq"). And a sufficient number of Democrats will either be persuaded by this ritual or will be sufficiently afraid of it to do anything other than let the entire spectacle continue.

The central unyielding truth in our political landscape is that -- no matter what -- the War in Iraq is not going to end before the end of the Bush presidency. That has been obvious for a very long time, and that is why it is so bizarre to watch the Beltway establishment continue to pretend that there is some Big Decision Day coming in September -- the day when Republicans take a stand and our political elite put their foot down.

Nothing has changed. Republicans and media-war-proponents are far too invested in the war to do anything other than claim it is finally going well. And there are more than enough Democrats who either (a) believe we should stay in Iraq indefinitely, (b) perceive political benefits from staying, and/or (c) fear forcing withdrawal.

Kevin Drum recently claimed that Gen. Petraeus "outplayed" bloggers and war opponents by secretly launching a brilliant P.R. campaign -- unbeknownst to naive bloggers -- to persuade the D.C. establishment that the Surge was Succeeding ("I've been thinking about is how badly the liberal blogosphere and the liberal establishment have been outplayed here. . . . We're only seeing the results of Petraeus's PR blitzkrieg now. . . . The general has profoundly outplayed the amateurs on their home turf. . . . Bravo, general. Well played"). That is completely wrong.

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While our media stars and Democratic politicians may not have been aware of it, most bloggers realized exactly what Gen. Petreaus was doing, and apparently, so, too, did most Americans. It's the same game that the D.C. Establishment has been playing for four years with regard to the war and it's anything but difficult to recognize.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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Washington, D.c.



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