Yet recent polling conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the National Democratic Institute suggests that such criticisms are weakly founded, and that the Obama administration is taking a positive step not only for the U.S., but also for Iraqi democracy. Taking Iraqi public opinion rather than U.S. punditry into account, three reasons emerge that suggest U.S. withdrawal is wise.
First, continued U.S. military presence in Iraq – even in a supervisory capacity – would be unpalatable to Iraqis. An 85 percent majority of Iraqis support a complete U.S. withdrawal (92 percent when factoring out the more U.S.-leaning Kurdish north). Privately, Iraqi leaders may have wanted U.S. military oversight, but such a decision would have been politically toxic. Most of Iraq’s politicians are already in a tenuous situation as favorability ratings of nearly all leaders have fallen over the year. To keep U.S. troops in Iraq despite Iraqis’ wishes would further damage the image of Iraq’s leaders and perceptions of their commitment to democracy.
What’s more, Iraqis do not credit U.S. troops with the improving security situation – in fact, most Iraqis (69 percent) believe security will improve once the U.S. withdraws. Further, earlier in the year, two-thirds of Iraqis asserted that they are “mostly relieved by the on-going withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.” For many Iraqis, the U.S. troops are simply a target attracting violence and foreign terrorists to Iraq. A real respect for Iraq’s new democracy means taking those views seriously.
Second, fears that a U.S. withdrawal means Iraqis will embrace the Iranian regime overlook Iraqi attitudes. Iraqis reject foreign involvement, period – whether from Washington or Tehran; and they are no fans of the Iranians, with whom they fought a bitter war. Only 14 percent of Iraqis have a favorable image of Iran. Even among Shia Iraqis, the figure is only 19 percent. Iraqis reject Iranian interference nearly to the extent they reject U.S. involvement: last year, 65 percent of Iraqis assessed that Iran has a mostly negative impact on Iraq. There is no question Iran desires influence over Iraqi politics, and they have means of attaining it; but they will be swimming against Iraqi public opinion.
Third, the argument that the U.S. should preserve its influence in Iraq by keeping a troop presence misses an important shift in Iraqi public opinion toward non-security concerns. Only 27 percent of Iraqis list security as one of the top two most important issues for the government to address. Instead, jobs and basic services drive Iraqis’ concerns. As 2011 looks to become the fifth year in a row that civilian casualties have decreased, formerly existential concerns are fading into more material ones. The U.S. may well have more influence with the Iraqi public by helping the country address its material challenges – from oil production to trade to economic opportunities – rather than by focusing only on troops.
It is true that the U.S. withdrawal means Washington loses a key fulcrum. But it will also shift the focus of Iraqis away from resentments over the U.S. presence and toward demands for accountability from their leaders. That will be a big challenge for Baghdad’s politicians. One way to meet this is to redefine how politicians view progress. Improved security is not enough. Signing oil exploration contracts is not enough. In fact, both increase expectations and drive up the desire for more and better job opportunities. For Iraqi leaders, success must be measured on the impact of these gains for average families.
Without question, the security challenges facing Iraq in the coming years will be enormous. Iran poses a real threat. Sectarian politics are intensifying. But ending the U.S. troop presence may give Iraq’s leaders the space to do one of the most important things to ensure the security and sovereignty of their new democracy: get closer to their own people, and do a better job of meeting their material needs.
Jessica Reis and John Moreira are pollsters and political consultants at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Together, they have over 20 years of public opinion research experience. They have conducted research in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute since 2010.