Ultimately, I'm not sure how useful or meaningful it is for me to debate the actual decisions that have been made ever since this whole mess started. Obviously it's not over and we can continue to argue about everything – Is it too soon and irresponsible to leave before cleaning up a mess that we started? Have we been meddling in other people's business for far too long and we should have left years ago? Is there some sort of aid that we can provide without being overbearing decision makers? I don't know anything about troops or insurgents or security forces. I don't have an opinion and I don't think we'll ever know if the other path would have been better.
The widely cited nationwide poll from earlier this month, conducted by Asharq Research Center, of 1,150 Iraqis reveals that 59.8% do not think that this is the right time for the US to withdraw (vs 39.5% that said it was) and that 53.1% disagree with Obama's August 31st date (vs 46.2%). [Quick calculation: given the population of Iraq, 30,700,000 in 2008, a sample of 1,150 gives you a 95% confidence interval with a margin of error of 3%.] Of note, these are far more favorable opinions of the US presence compared to the nationwide Gallop poll of 3,444 Iraqis in 2005 where 71% viewed the US as “occupiers” (vs “liberators”), 53% said they would feel less secure without the coalition in Iraq, and 57% said foreign troops should leave anyway [margin or error of 2%].
The percentages indicate that Iraqis are pretty close to split down the middle, always a stressful place in a “democracy.” Though if it's put in the perspective of most controversial political decisions, a 50/50 split isn't unusual. Prop 8 was passed 52/48 and in a recent poll of 1,977 Californians, 51% were in favor of gay marriage (versus 42% against, 7% no opinion).
When reported in the news, these polls are used to inform the American public if the decisions that we're making are in line with the citizens of Iraq. What I think is most significant finding about the polls is that opinions about the US presence, US politicians, security, and whether or not the US should stay are not consistent. Certainly, this reflects the complexity of the situation. More importantly, it reflects the ambivalence that all of us have, individually and collectively, when faced with a complicated situation and unknown outcomes. I think that some folks have interpreted this split as a free license to do whatever the US seems fit; since either way about 50% of the Iraqi public will disagree, what difference does it make? But this is the same mistake that we made the first time around. It's not that the majority of Iraqis were against removing Hussain from power (there are polls for that too), it's that we decided for them.
In this debate, we've subtly allowed the number of US troops in Iraq to represent things that are related but not equivalent. Sometimes it's taken to mean the amount of US aid to Iraq. Other times we decide that it means how much influence the US has in Iraq or even how much we care about Iraq. But really, these are not the same thing. For example, the remaining fifty thousand American troops being placed under the command of Iraqi politicians is very different than 50,000 troops that are commanding Iraqi security forces.
Ultimately, I have no idea if now was the the right time to withdraw our troops. But I'm not sure that it matters, because the main criticism of this whole snafu in the first place was the disempowerment of a whole country. It still remains to be seen if the departure of American troops will allow more autonomy, or if our country's influence simply morphs into a more insidious presence through policy and economics. Regardless, at least we're consistent: it was ironic to enter a country to free it without its request and it's ironic to decide for someone else that they're ready to make their own decisions.