July 15, 2008 | Washington Post

Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates’ Iraq-Pullout Positions

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds the country split down the middle between those backing Sen. Barack Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and those agreeing with Sen. John McCain's position that events, not timetables, should dictate when forces come home.

Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, will deliver what his campaign is billing as a “major address” on Iraq today in Washington, part of an effort to convince voters that he could serve effectively as commander in chief. The public is also evenly divided on that question, with 48 percent saying he would be an effective leader of the military and 48 percent saying he would not.

On Iraq policy in general, Americans continue to side with Obama and McCain, his Republican rival, in roughly equal numbers, with 47 percent of those polled saying they trust McCain more to handle the war, and 45 percent having more faith in Obama.

The poll results suggest that months of Democratic attacks on McCain's Iraq position have not dented voters' basic trust in his ability to lead the country's armed forces: Seventy-two percent said McCain would make a good commander in chief.

“The most important number by Election Day is whether a majority of the electorate has achieved a comfort level with Obama as commander in chief,” said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster who was a strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, and who considers Obama's 48 percent a strong starting position. “I think this is the one dimension on which he will be tested and where Republicans will try hard to raise big doubts about Obama.”

David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said of the candidate's standing: “This is not a particularly new or unusual finding. People believe the war was a mistake. They believe we should leave. And they want it done in a deliberate, thoughtful way.”

The polling data underscore why the two campaigns are fighting the war over the war so fiercely. Ahead of today's speech and a planned trip to Iraq, Obama wrote an opinion article in yesterday's New York Times, saying that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's call last week for a withdrawal timetable is an opportunity the United States must embrace.

“Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis' taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country,” Obama wrote, pledging that he would stick to his plan to begin the withdrawal of one to two combat brigades per month upon taking office.

The Times commentary drew a furious response from the McCain campaign, with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) calling it “an unbelievably brazen effort by a politician to rewrite history.” He accused Obama of building “a political strategy around losing” the war.

Republicans were not alone in that response. Michael E. O'Hanlon, a Democratic defense analyst at the Brookings Institution who has been an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq, said he could not believe that Obama would put such a definitive timeline into print before a trip to Iraq, where he is to consult with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders.

“To say you're going to get out on a certain schedule — regardless of what the Iraqis do, regardless of what our enemies do, regardless of what is happening on the ground — is the height of absurdity,” said O'Hanlon, who described himself as “livid.” “I'm not going to go to the next level of invective and say he shouldn't be president. I'll leave that to someone else.”

Susan E. Rice, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, snapped back, calling McCain's position “fundamentally disconnected from reality.”

The recent decline in attacks on U.S. forces and in overall violence in Iraq has done nothing to convince Americans that the war has been worth fighting. Sixty-three percent said it has not been worth its costs, a figure that has changed little over the past two years. But 46 percent now say the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order there, an uptick from 40 percent in April.

Even so, public views on Iraq stand in stark contrast to those about the conflict in Afghanistan. A narrow majority — 51 percent — said that the war there has been worth fighting. And 51 percent also said the United States must win in Afghanistan to succeed in the broader terrorism battle, a sharp contrast to the 34 percent who said the same thing about the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, some of the shine has come off U.S. efforts in Afghanistan as well.

Forty-four percent now say U.S. military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been successful, down from 70 percent in October 2002, a year after allied forces went to war there.

Such sentiment ratifies Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing forces from Iraq immediately and to shift at least two combat brigades to Afghanistan, to “re-center our foreign policy,” as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) put it yesterday.

Biden said the Bush administration's war policies, most of which McCain has backed, “have made us weaker than in any time in modern history.” Four recent events have underscored how urgently Obama's prescriptions are needed, he added. Commanders in the field and in the Pentagon have begun to say publicly that forces that are urgently needed in Afghanistan are tied down in Iraq. The Maliki government has refused to sign any long-term agreement on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq without a withdrawal timeline. U.S. military commanders there are growing more confident that Iraq's military will be ready to assume control of the country by next year. And al-Qaeda and the Taliban have regrouped and grown stronger in the largely ungoverned tribal regions of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.

“Senator Obama's got it profoundly right,” said Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign's top foreign policy aide, noted that Biden championed the idea of dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish. “If we had followed Senator Biden's ill-informed advice to split Iraq into three pieces, we would have seen wide-scale civil war,” he said.

Americans are divided on which candidate has a plan for success in the region. Exactly half of those polled said they backed Obama's plan to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. But 49 percent sided with McCain's position of opposing a specific timetable and letting events dictate when troops should be withdrawn. Among independents, who will be the key voting bloc in November, 53 percent oppose Obama's timeline.

“The American people are very conflicted on how to go forward, whether or not they thought we should've gone in there,” said Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster. “And for good reasons. They understand there are difficult consequences in terms of our interests in the region and our interests abroad.”

This is the first time the Post-ABC poll has squared the two candidates' withdrawal plans against each other. In previous polls, a majority of Americans (55 percent in June) put a priority on withdrawal even without civil order in Iraq.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone July 10 to 13 among a random national sample of 1,119 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.