« No Wonder Bush Is Running as a War Leader | Main | The Medicare Prescription Drugs Bill: Another Miserable Failure »

The Big Shift: How Public Opinion Has Changed on Iraq

It's the one year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. That makes it a very good time to review how public opinion on Iraq has evolved since the invasion, going from strong support to the question-laden, how-do-we-get-out-of-this-mess view that characterizes the public today.

CBS News has usefully summarized some of the relevant data in a report, "Shifting Opinions on Iraq". The report points out that Bush's approval rating skied to 73 percent when US troops entered Baghdad. In the latest CBS News poll, it's down to 51 percent, a drop of 22 points.

Similarly, Bush's approval rating on Iraq reached 79 percent after the fall of Baghdad. But in the latest CBS News poll, it's down to 49 percent, a decline of 30 points.

What happened? After all, the Iraq army was beaten in short order and in December Saddam Hussein was captured. But, as far as the public was concerned, Saddam's capture did little to remedy the three big problems with our occupation of Iraq: casualties, financial costs and WMD (the abundance of the first two and the lack of the third). It is these problems that have undercut--and continue to undercut--public support for the Iraq war and occupation. Therefore, since Saddam’s capture clearly did not solve any of these problems--far from it--his capture, in the end, did little to change increasingly negative public views of the Iraq situation.

These negative views include the following. According to CBS News polls, a majority says “the result of the war with Iraq” was not worth “the loss of American life and other costs” (51 percent to 42 percent). A majority (55 percent) also believes that, as a result of the war with Iraq, the US is either less safe from terrorism (19 percent) or there has been no change (36 percent), rather than that we are safer from terrorism (42 percent). In addition, 61 percent say that the Bush administration was either hiding elements (45 percent) or mostly lying (16 percent) about what they knew about Iraq’s WMD. The public also believes that the the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated intelligence findings to build support for the war (59 percent), rather than interpreted that intelligence accurately. And, it’s fascinating to note that, at this late date, 57 percent still think either that the Iraq threat could have been contained (45 percent) or that it wasn’t a threat at all (12 percent), compared to 42 percent who believe Iraq’s threat merited immediate military action.

Data from other public polls show the public believes that Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation, thinks the level of casualties the US is sustaining is unacceptable and strongly opposes the extra $87 billion that was allocated by the US Congress last November for the Iraq occupation. They also overwhelmingly believe that capturing Osama Bin Laden and breaking up al-Qaeda should be the central front in the war on terrorism, not capturing Saddam and establishing democracy in Iraq.

So there's been quite a shift in public opinion since the euphoric days last April when the US troops stormed into Baghdad and the statue of Saddam came down. One can summarize these data by saying the public now has two big questions about Iraq and the war on terror for which it's seeking answers.

(1) How do we get out of Iraq? That's not to say the public wants the US to precipitately withdraw and let Iraq degenerate into total chaos. But the public does want to know how the casualty count can be drastically reduced, the financial and military burden shared and the US occupation come to an eventual and successful close.

(2) How can we stop terrorism? The public was always unclear on the relationship between US national security and the invasion of Iraq. The failure to find WMD in Iraq has underscored those doubts, as has the continuing failure to dismantle the Al Qaeda terror network. The latter failure has, of course, been recently and bloodily illustrated by the March 11 train bombing in Spain.

Current Bush administration policy has no good answers to either one of these questions. That suggests public support for the Iraq occupation and for the administration's Iraq-centered approach to the war on terror will continue to ebb, until such answers are forthcoming.

It also suggests some lessons for the Kerry campaign. Kerry must avoid anything--like tangential comments about foreign leaders' presidential preferences--that takes the heat off Bush for not providing these answers. How do we get out of Iraq? How do we stop terrorism? Bush does not have convincing answers other than to continue doing what already isn't working and voters should be relentlessly reminded of this. The key is to keep Bush on the defensive, rather than letting him push back on peripheral comments and issues that connect to his general status as commander-in-chief, rather than to his specific failures in the field.

The other side of this, of course, is that Kerry needs his own answers to these very questions. What is Kerry's plan to get the US out of Iraq? What is Kerry's plan to stop terrorism? His recent speech at George Washington University certainly provides elements of answers to these questions, but it was focused more on "protecting our military families in times of war", as the speech's title put it. That personnel-focused approach to strengthening our military and connecting to military families and veterans has much to recommend it (see David Kusnet's piece on The New Republic's website), but it does not fully answer these two questions.

I suggest he do so.


On March 15, Josh Marshall wrote at his site, www.talkingpointsmemo.com :

"The debate is not whether you leave terrorist networks intact. That's the baseline--rooting out the networks. The real question--the one on which there may be said to be a true debate--is whether the terrorist networks are truly independent actors or whether they cannot subsist without states backing them, whether they are in fact the pawns of states.

The Bush approach has been fundamentally the latter one--a belief in the continuing centrality of states as the actors in international affairs. Thus, the focus on taking down states as a means of combatting al Qaida. The contrary approach is one that actually focuses much more on the terrorist networks." (end of Marshall's remarks)

It sounds to me from the data you're citing that the American public sides with those who say the focus needs to be much more on the terrorist networks themselves.

Obviously efforts to go after terrorist networks need to respect accepted norms of national sovereignty.

The Administration's view seems to be that so long as there are governments which refuse to participate in, cooperate with, or permit multinational efforts to disrupt, apprehend, or destroy terrorist networks, those governments must be removed as a precursor to any effective action against the networks they abide.

One could even agree with that view and oppose future actions along the lines of the Iraq war which are either a distraction from effective efforts against the terrorist networks or may even make such efforts more difficult. (It's hard to dispute that at least at present al Qaeda has a far greater presence in Iraq now than before the war.)

Shibley Telhami, in his book The Stakes: America and the Middle East, had some thoughts on this question which made sense to me. I'll summarize them in a later post tonight where from home I'll have more time and access to my copy of the book.

Ruy, what's needed here for the benefit of the Kerry campaign, is to turn this sequence of change in American Public Opinion into a narrative that is easily understandable to voters in the middle -- those Independents we need. People changed their opinions when they came to understand errors, bad policy, poor execution of policy and plans -- and it is the matter of affirming these reasoned changed (when the people have decent information, they revise their positions) that will gain us stronger support across the board.

I suspect Wesley Clark actually framed it best when he called for "a Plan for Success." and you can do a fairly good critique of Bush's performance by taking as your thesis that because such a comprehensive plan was lacking, or at least was not known by and understood by the informed electorate, virtually all the failures can be attributed to lack of planning, and instead substitution of either Public Relations or band-aid responses to planning failures. Americans have seen this now -- they understand the "story" to this point -- and they don't like it. The alternative -- the "Plan for Success" then becomes a choice that can gain identification with voters.

The debate between those who see Terrorism as linked to state sponsorship, versus those who comprehend it as post-nationalist, an aspect of Globalization, was apparently a huge debate during the Clinton era. Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin cover this both as Intellectual History and as Bureaucratic infighting in their supurb book "The Age of Sacred Terror" which is now in paperback with excellent updating. They well illustrate the position that in many cases bureaucracy is so tied to the "State Sponsorship" analysis they find it virtually impossible to comprehend the post-nationalist model -- and apparently this conflict defeated many a good proposal and slowed down many others. They have a fully developed description of this by tracing the progress (or lack of it) of the predator program. It's worth having all the elements of this and other saga's in mind -- they are sure to become points of debate in the campaign.

Kerry needs to reformulate the either/or "Law Enforcement" versus "Military Offensive" debate so it is understood as "both and" -- not "either/or" In a state with reasonable institutions, one should expect normal law enforcement to be capable of dealing with Terrorist. The problem emerges when states lack that capacity -- for various reasons. These failures can range between the Saudi inability to track finances of their own citizens that support Terrorist networks, inability at least in part justified by religious positions -- through the situation in true failed states where corruption and lack of capacity has simply denuded normative law enforcement. In otherwords the problem is a continuum, and the assets in the nations tool box for responding need to be matched to the nature of the problem. Put bluntly -- forget the ideology, and look at the problem pragmatically. If Kerry can make that argument, he can make a fool of Condi and her crowd.

as for the "shift" in opinion, it's that you're more likely to support a war w/ Iraq when American soldiers enter the capital city.

I took Ruy as inviting comments on outlines for the policy response to terrorism. Obviously the public message piece needs to flow from that.

Re the policy challenge in combating terrorism:

*a given is that where the security of the US is directly threatened we will act unilaterally. This needs to be stated up front so as to neutralize Bush's "permission slip" rhetoric.

*From this layperson's perspective, the main barriers that need to be surmounted are to:

1) break down the norms of secrecy that prevent sharing of intelligence not just between nations but clearly within our own nation. It would be ironic/bizarre if the nations and peoples of the world who prize openness hamstring themselves from effective efforts to combat terrorism because of the culture of secrecy that pervades their intelligence agencies. But I suspect most of us are not looking at this issue primarily through the lens of the novelist. Moynihan's book Secrecy has made its way rapidly to the top of my reading stack.

2) develop as much international agreement as possible--could it be more obvious this desperately needs to include moderate Arab and Muslim governments?--on the definition of terrorism (Telhami's book offers one take on this) and the nature of terrorism-related threats that call for international action, including the use of force. This is greatly complicated by the widespread perception of a current lack of balance in our policies towards Israel and the Palestinians (see Telhami's book on this point also, among many others that could be cited)

3) as much international agreement as possible to develop a rapid-response capability that uses legitimate and documentable means of arriving at conclusions and that embraces principles such as proportionality where force is used. This could mean building on current institutions--international ones such as the UN, regional ones such as NATO or the EU--developing new ones, or some combination of the above. Here--and perhaps only here--is where a doctrine or at least a carefully delimited policy of "preemption" might make sense as necessary in some instances.

All of this will take strong US presidential leadership that will have to overcome major credibility and trust issues re our foreign policy which this Administration has created, on top of what had been there previously. The perception of the threat and the stakes as being very high is all that makes attainment of any of this even possible. If such an effort is attempted and fails, the United States is in a far better place to act unilaterally so long as we are able to make a broadly accepted case for the actions we take.

Public Message

Given the nature of the threat, what would most reassure the US public, I believe--and this might be a testable proposition--would be a highly visible effort led by the US, involving very broad portions of the international community, to go after the most dangerous terrorist networks in an aggressive, cooperative fashion. There would need to be accountability both to the governments involved and also to the international community.

The message from our government is along the lines of "We're on the case. We are leading an aggressive, internationally-supported effort to go after the terrorist networks which undermine the security of innocent civilians all around the globe." Undoubtedly there are people who can come up with the soundbite/bumpersticker version of that.

Each nation will have to decide what internal measures it will take to protect itself, and at what costs to personal liberties.

I'm not sure what more could be done on this issue.