CBS News/The New York Times sponsored a poll on the question of troop levels in Afghanistan that shows the number of people who want less or the same number of troops in Afghanistan outnumber those who want escalation.
These numbers are more consistent with the Harris/BBC America poll I blogged about a few weeks ago than the surprising Gallup poll that showed strong support for the decision to add troops. My hypothesis about the wide variation between the CBS/NYT poll and the Harris/BBC America poll on one hand and the Gallup poll on the other is that the framing of the Gallup poll question had a deep impact on the results.
The Harris/BBC America poll asked:
Do you believe the United States should commit more or less troops to the war in Afghanistan?
Result: 33 percent want more, 21 percent want same, 27 percent want less, meaning more people favor status quo or fewer numbers of troops than want more troops.
This most recent CBS News/NYT poll asked:
U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should be…? (increased, decreased, or kept the same?)
Result: 42 percent said increased, 24 percent decreased, 23 percent kept the same. Still, a plurality wants status quo or fewer troops vs. wanting more troops sent to Afghanistan.
But take a look what happens when you reframe the question a bit. The Gallup poll asked:
Do you approve or disapprove of Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan?
Result: 65 percent approve, 33 percent disapprove.
The first two questions only ask about the respondent’s opinion about troop levels. The Gallup question, though, is in past tense (troops are already on their way), but more importantly (I think), it calls the new troop deployment “Obama’s decision.” A significant slice of Americans seem willing to trust Obama even when it goes against their gut. In principle, I’m ambivalent about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but with regards to Afghanistan, I think that dynamic could be disastrous. The President is out in front of the people on this one, not vice versa. While political advisors in the White House may want to celebrate Obama’s ability to bring the public along on this issue, I’d hold off on popping open any champagne bottles. Because Obama is creating his own political space on this issue, if it collapses, it will cost him dearly in terms of political capital.
I’ve written at length about the strategic problems with our attempt to apply counterinsurgency doctrine to Afghanistan, but my true objection is a moral and spiritual objection: Jesus teaches us to love both our neighbor and our enemy and to reject violence as a means to participate in conflict. Catholic scholar John L. McKenzie wrote:
“If we cannot know from the New Testament that Jesus absolutely rejected violence, we can know nothing of his person or message. It is the clearest of teachings.” (as cited here)
Obama campaigned at length on his Christian bona fides after rumors circulated that he was a secret Muslim. The Jesus he loudly proclaimed during the election has things to say about the current conflict, and if I were on the political and strategic highwire he’s on right now, I’d be praying. But more than that, I’d start listening.