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The Iraq War, Three Years On

by Ruy Teixeira

The Iraq war began on March 20, 2003 so this Monday was the three year anniversary of the war. A number of polling organizations have taken advantage of this milestone to conduct extensive polling on the public’s current views of the war.

The largest such effort was by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Here are some of their key findings, as summarized at the beginning of their report, Americans on Iraq: Three Years On:

By a two-to-one margin, Americans now say that the Iraq war was a war of choice, not a war of necessity—i.e., it was not necessary for the defense of the US—and that the war was not the best use of US resources. For the first time, a majority now believes that Iraq did not have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, though the public is still divided on whether Iraq supported al-Qaeda. Such beliefs are highly correlated with support for the war. A large bipartisan majority says that if Iraq did not have WMD or did not support al-Qaeda, the US should not have gone to war. Majorities in both parties perceive the Bush administration as continuing to say that Iraq did have WMD or a major WMD program and provided substantial support to al-Qaeda.

A large majority of Americans want to begin drawing down US troops in Iraq, although only one in four favors a quick pullout. Two out of three perceive that the situation in Iraq is getting worse, and a clear majority expresses low confidence that the US intervention will succeed. A majority is not convinced that a US withdrawal would make the situation in Iraq worse than it is. Support for drawing down US troops does not appear to be related to the growing number of US troop fatalities. The strongest factor appears to be the perception that the presence of US troops provokes more attacks, followed by the lack of confidence that the operation will ultimately succeed.

A large bipartisan majority of Americans oppose permanent US military bases in Iraq and believe that most Iraqis are opposed as well, but a modest majority believes that the US nonetheless plans to have permanent bases. A large majority thinks that the US should be willing to accept a new Iraqi government setting a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops, and thinks that most Iraqis want such a timeline, but an overwhelming majority thinks that the US would refuse to agree to such a timeline.

There’s more in the report. I urge you to take a look at it.

Gallup has also conducted a great deal of recent polling on Iraq and has issued a report, Three Years of War Have Eroded Public Support, comparing their most recent data to past data they have collected. Among their findings:

The poll shows that 60% of Americans today say the war is not worth it, while in March 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq began, only 29% said it was not worth it to go to war.

At the time, 69% of Americans said the United States would "certainly" win; today just 22% have that level of confidence. Also, at the time the war was launched, just 4% of the public thought it either unlikely the United States would win, or certain it would not win; today 41% are that pessimistic.

By 73% to 24%, Americans said the war was morally justified when it began; today the public is divided, with 47% saying it is morally justified and 50% saying it is not.

Part of the Bush administration's justification for going to war was that such an undertaking would be part of the wider war on terrorism. Americans were divided on this issue in January 2003, with 50% agreeing and 48% disagreeing with the Bush administration. By August 2003, the public agreed by a larger margin, 57% to 41%. Today Americans reject the link between the war in Iraq and the wider war on terrorism by 53% to 44%.

Shortly before the war began, 51% of Americans thought the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein targeted a leader who had personally been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while 41% disagreed. Today, by 54% to 39%, Americans say the Iraqi leader was not personally involved in the attacks.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, a May/June 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed most Americans rejected the charge that the Bush administration deliberately misled the public about the matter, by 67% to 31%. Today, a slight majority, 51% to 46%, believes the Bush administration did deliberately mislead the public.

All very interesting. But perhaps the most interesting finding is this. Gallup asked a question that gave respondents four different options for dealing with the war in Iraq: “withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately, withdraw all troops by March 2007 -- that is, in 12 months' time, withdraw troops, but take as many years to do this as are needed to turn control over to the Iraqis, or send more troops to Iraq?” The response is a clear majority (54 percent) for withdrawing all troops within a year, with 19 percent wanting immediate withdrawal and another 35 percent favoring withdrawal by March, 2007.

That seems pretty clear. And how about this other fact provided by Gallup. In early August, 1970, Gallup asked the same question about the Vietnam War, giving respondents the same four options and found 48 percent wanted to either leave immed1ately (23 percent) or within a year (25 percent). In other words, there is stronger sentiment now for leaving Iraq within a year than there was about leaving Vietnam within a year in 1970, after the killings at Kent State and at practically the height of antiwar movement.

Now that’s impressive.

One final note: Bush’s approval rating on Iraq has now dipped below 30 percent for the first time in a major public poll. In the latest Newsweek poll, his approval rating on Iraq is 29 per cent, with 65 percent disapproval. Based on the rest of the data reviewed here, I’d say we’re likely to see more sub-30 Bush approval ratings on Iraq in the future.