There is a discrepancy in public opinion regarding Iraq. In the abstract, the American public continues to support the idea of going to war there, as more than half continue to say it was a worthwhile endeavor. However, public opinion about the specific handling of the Iraq situation is more negative. Just 42% say they approve of the way the United States has handled the situation in Iraq since the major fighting ended, according to the most recent data (Nov. 14-16)*.
Recent polling suggests that Americans' support for the war in the abstract may be influenced by two U.S. goals for military action in Iraq -- ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing a democratic government in place of his dictatorship. Generally speaking, more than half the American public accepts the idea that it is possible for countries in the Middle East to become democracies, and a similar number believes that the United States has a responsibility to help countries rid themselves of dictators.
Is It America's Job to Establish Democracy?
The motivation behind the war in Iraq remains a hot button for many Americans. Skeptics argue that the United States is an imperialist nation seeking to colonize areas rich in oil reserves. The war's strongest supporters, on the other hand, accept the Bush administration's basic assertion that America is simply a powerful peacekeeper with a moral obligation to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator.
The results of one question of Gallup's Nov. 14-16 poll suggest that the believers outnumber the skeptics. Fifty-six percent of the American public believes it is the United States' responsibility to "help other countries rid themselves of dictators and become democracies." Slightly fewer than 4 in 10 Americans (38%) do not believe the United States bears this responsibility.
The Americans who believe the war in Iraq was worth it, those who say they "are sure that the decision to go to war was the right" one, and those who approve of the way the United States is currently handling the situation there also tend to say that the United States has a responsibility to replace dictators with democracies. More than 6 in 10 of those who hold each of these opinions also believe that the United States has the responsibility to establish democracy.
But Is It Possible?
Regardless of whether the United States is responsible for establishing democracy in countries ruled by dictators, the question of whether that's a realistic objective remains.
Americans are slightly more likely to express optimism than pessimism about the prospect of countries in the Middle East becoming democracies. More than half (55%) think it is possible "for Muslim countries of the Middle East to ever become democracies like those in Europe and the United States," while 43% do not think it is possible.
Men are more optimistic than women are about the prospect of democracy in the Middle East, 62% compared to 48%, respectively**. Americans under the age of 50 are also more likely to be optimistic than those 50 and older about the notion that democracy can take root in the Middle East.
However, this optimism is tempered by the view, held by 53% of Americans, that the recent U.S. actions in Iraq will not encourage political and economic reform in other countries in the Middle East.
The reasoning behind America's invasion of Iraq remains subject to debate -- a dialogue that will inevitably be rehashed over the course of next year's election campaign. But the public's guarded optimism concerning the possibility of democracy growing in the Middle East, as well as the conviction of a majority of Americans that it is the United States' responsibility to remove dictators and replace them with democracies, help to explain why Americans still support the U.S. mission in Iraq, despite their disapproval of the specific handling of the situation there.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 508 and 496 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 14-16, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
**For results based on the sample of 221 men and 275 women, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±7 percentage points.