The Argument

THE ARGUMENT….Last night, mulling over the contradictions in the way people answer various poll questions, I guessed that there’s “something like 30% who want to stay in Iraq, 30% who want to get out, and 40% somewhere in the middle who aren’t really sure what to do.” No poll will ever confirm this beyond doubt, of course, since polls (at best) measure only inclination, not depth of feeling. But given the way people respond to different wordings of different questions, it seems like a reasonable guess.

Here’s why it matters: we’re not going to get out of Iraq until a sufficient number of people get pissed off enough about it to demand action — and we’re kidding ourselves if we think a casual answer to a poll question counts as “pissed off.” Support for withdrawal is almost certainly not as deep or as wide as a quick glance at the polls suggests, and that’s why congressional Democrats haven’t worked up the gumption to defund the war. They don’t think there are enough voters firmly on their side.

So why are so many people unsure of what to do? Because Iraq is a big, messy problem, of course. But there’s more than that. Conservatives have presented a clear message: If we leave, al-Qaeda will take over Iraq. If we leave, there will be genocide. If we leave, Iraq’s civil war will spread and the entire region will erupt in flames.

Liberals, by contrast, mostly just argue that the surge isn’t working and there’s been no political progress. And that’s true. But it’s a lousy argument. Conservatives are making a persuasive and spine-chilling prediction of disaster if we leave. Liberals are just saying our presence isn’t accomplishing anything. That’s not enough. Instead of merely claiming that we’re not doing any good in Iraq, we need to make persuasive arguments that we’re actively doing harm. There are plenty to choose from:

  • A significant chunk of the insurgency is motivated by opposition to the American occupation. Our presence is actively inflaming the violence, not reducing it.

  • The Maliki government will never make any political compromises as long as they know we’re around to prop them up. Leaving is the only way to force them into action.

  • We’re arming both sides in a civil war. The longer we stay, the worse the eventual bloodbath will be.

  • Our presence in Iraq is al-Qaeda’s greatest recruiting tool. They’re going to keep getting stronger until we leave.

  • The real disaster is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We desperately need to more troops into that theater.

These aren’t nuanced arguments. If you were writing a 5,000-word piece for Foreign Affairs you’d hedge them until they were barely recognizable. But in the hurly-burly arena of blogs and op-eds and TV shoutfests, this is what it takes to drive public opinion.

When we argue that the surge isn’t working, we’re playing on conservative turf. We’re accepting their frame for the debate. We need to stop, and instead start making positive arguments of our own that conservatives have to parry. It’s the only way we’re going to turn the leaners into genuine war opponents.