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Iraq in the Context of Past Polling

Iraq in the Context of Past Polling

As Islamic militants take control of wide swaths of Iraq, including the country's second-largest city of Mosul, the Obama administration is facing substantial criticism with regard to its 2011 decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq. And while The Wall Street Journal is reporting that President Obama has ruled out "immediate air strikes," against territories held by extremist groups, there is building pressure coming from Congress as well as elsewhere for military action of some sort. Politico reports, for instance, that Republican Sens. Bob Corker, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham have called for air strikes in Iraq to weaken the terrorist groups.

Gallup is currently collecting new information on the American public's opinion on the crisis in Iraq, but past data show that Obama's decision to withdraw troops was strongly supported by the country at the time. In October 2011, only months before the final U.S. soldier was to withdraw from Iraq, three-fourths of the country approved of Obama's decision to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq, and about one-fifth disapproved (21%). As the withdrawal process unfolded in August 2010, Americans expressed a strong preference to stick to withdrawal timetables regardless of the security situation in Iraq (53%), whereas 43% said they thought it was important to keep troops if Iraqis could not maintain order. Keep in mind that, at that time, Americans had little confidence in Iraqi security forces to maintain security (34%). Even amid this lack of faith in Iraqi security forces, a majority of Americans wanted to proceed with the troop withdrawal plans.

This strong support for a U.S. troop withdrawal undoubtedly stems, at least in part, from the fact that most Americans viewed the original invasion as a mistake. In February of 2014, 57% said the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. And this has been true for some time -- a majority of Americans initially said that the 2003 invasion was a mistake in June 2004, and since October 2006, a consistent majority of Americans have voiced than opinion. Additionally, in August 2010, a majority of Americans (53%) said history will judge the U.S. invasion and subsequent involvement in Iraq as either "mostly a failure" or "totally a failure."

We also know that, with regard to possible air strikes against Iraq, the last proposed (though never acted upon) military campaign against Syria had the lowest favorable rating in the recent U.S. history of asking about possible military involvement in foreign countries, with 36% saying they favored military action against the Syrian government. This lack of broad support had real consequences for the administration: Obama's intention to ask for congressional authorization to attack Syria seemed likely to flounder before the administration changed course.

What does all of this mean as the United States decides on a course of action with regard to Iraq? Likely, that the U.S. will tread very carefully and be very reluctant, as Obama has emphasized, to include U.S. troops for any major operations (Obama announced that 275 troops will be sent for the purposes of securing the U.S. Embassy). Americans mostly supported leaving Iraq, regardless of the security situation in that country, so it stands to reason that many Americans will think twice about sending troops back into Iraq even if the country is facing violent disorder. Meanwhile, Obama has thus far been reluctant to order the type of air strikes his congressional critics demand, and this could be one result of the low level of support Obama received in 2013 to his proposal to strike Syria.

Additionally, the chaos in Iraq has put the U.S. in an odd moment of agreement with Iraq's influential neighbor Iran. Both the U.S. and Iran have a strong desire to ensure that the government and territorial integrity of Iraq survive this terrorist onslaught, and both are alarmed by the rise of Sunni Muslim extremist Islamic terrorists. This common interest has led to speculation that Iran and the U.S. could work together to find a solution for this crisis. While the Obama administration has had nothing concrete to say about this matter, this moment comes at a time when far fewer Americans regard Iran as the United States' greatest enemy. Earlier this year, 16% of Americans said Iran was the United States' greatest enemy, compared with 32% in 2012.

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is Gallup's Editor-in-Chief. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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