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Americans Believe U.S. Participation in Gulf War a Decade Ago Worthwhile

Americans Believe U.S. Participation in Gulf War a Decade Ago Worthwhile

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- Today marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War, when U.S. and allied troops forced the Iraqis out of Kuwait and a cease-fire was declared. According to a new Gallup poll, conducted February 19-21, as Americans reflect on their country's participation in that action a decade ago, they believe the situation in the Gulf region at that time was worth going to war over by a two-to-one margin, 63% to 31%. And by a much smaller margin, 52% to 42%, they say they would favor sending U.S. troops back to the Persian Gulf in order to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

By the end of the Persian Gulf War, there was widespread public support for U.S. participation in the war and approval of the way President George Bush was handling the situation. In fact, in the wake of the cease-fire, Bush received the highest job approval rating any president has received since Gallup began asking the question in the 1930s, with 89% of Americans indicating their approval and just 8% disapproval. President Harry Truman received his highest rating (87%) in June 1945, right after Germany's surrender in World War II. The only other two presidents to receive approval ratings of at least 80% are Franklin D. Roosevelt , who received his highest rating (84%) in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and John F. Kennedy, whose highest approval rating (83%) came after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

Despite the eventual popularity of the Persian Gulf War, Americans had to be coaxed into support for that effort. In response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they did give immediate support to President Bush's decision to send American forces to Saudi Arabia in early August 1990, by 78% to 17%, but they were about evenly divided over whether the situation there was really worth going to war over, and a majority opposed the United States' initiating military efforts to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

Four polls conducted between mid-August and November 1990 showed a divided public on whether the situation was worth going to war over or not. On average, 47% thought it was, while 43% thought it was not. And when Americans were first asked -- in a Gallup poll conducted right before Thanksgiving 1990 -- about U.S. forces being used to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, they opposed such action by 51% to 37%.

The Bush administration put considerable effort into persuading U.S. allies about the need to oppose Saddam Hussein, and its success in that effort was reflected in a November U.N. resolution that authorized the use of "all means necessary" to evict Iraq from Kuwait. Following that resolution, a new Gallup poll showed a 27-point swing in public support, with a majority of Americans now in support of military action against Iraq if it did not leave Kuwait. (See Table)


If the current situation in the Middle East involving Iraq and Kuwait does not change by January, would you favor or oppose the United States going to war in order to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait?




Unsure/no opinion


1990 Nov 29-Dec 2^




1990 Nov 15-18





^After U.N. resolution authorizing use of "all means necessary" to evict Iraq from Kuwait

As the above example makes clear, the Bush administration's successful efforts to involve U.S. allies and the United Nations in the war against Iraq helped persuade Americans to support the effort as well. That point is reinforced by results of a January 3-6, 1991 Gallup poll, shortly before the start of the air strikes against Iraq. When Americans were reminded of U.N. resolutions on the matter and of the fact that allies were involved, support for military action was about two-to-one in favor -- 62% to 32% -- while a question that did not refer to the U.N. or to American allies elicited a lower level of support at 52% to 39%.

Americans Still Reluctant to Begin War
Despite the U.N. resolution and growing American support for military action against Iraq, the public still seemed ambivalent about going to war if there were some reasonable possibility of avoiding it. In a November 29-December 2, 1990, poll, for example, 9% of Americans said the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia altogether, while another 46% said the U.S. should continue to enforce sanctions and seek a peaceful resolution no matter how long it would take and without initiating a war to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Just 42% said the U.S. should initiate a war to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait if Iraq did not change its position within the next several months.

The results from the question that presented three options -- withdraw now, wait indefinitely for sanctions to work, or initiate war if Iraq does not leave Kuwait -- showed Americans wanting to avoid war, by 55% to 42%. The question that presented only two options -- going to war or not -- showed a reversal of opinion, with Americans opting for war by 53% to 40%. These different results suggested a public that was somewhat conflicted about the issue, and thus perhaps not as steadfast in its support for the war as the Bush administration would have liked. A Gallup analysis of public opinion as it was measured in December 1990, only a month before the war was expected to begin, painted a somewhat bleak picture of possible public support:

"More than four months after President George Bush's initial decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia, the American public is deeply split over the implications and future of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf. The latest Gallup poll finds that a majority still approves of the initial deployment, but there is no emerging consensus about what should be done next.

"This could mean that if the United States initiates a war against Iraq in January, President Bush inevitably will face a sizable opposition. As many Americans think the situation is not worth going to war over as think it is. Depending on how the scenario plays out, anywhere from 40% to 55% will not approve of initiating military action.

"Moreover, approval for the way President Bush is handling the crisis is down more than 20 percentage points from August, to 57%, and is now in the range maintained by President Lyndon Johnson in the early years of Vietnam and by President Richard Nixon at various points in his prosecution of that war. In short, respondents give Bush only an average -- not exceptional -- level of support for his handling of the Persian Gulf crisis."

The analysis also pointed out that support even for the deployment of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia had declined, from the initial 78% level in August to 63% in December. In some respects, Americans seemed to be "souring" on the possibility of war.

In mid-January, just a couple of days before the air strikes actually began, the Bush administration had made considerable progress in persuading the public about the importance of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. The three-part question revealed a 16-point swing toward the administration's position from the previous month. Now 50% of Americans supported military action, up seven percentage points from mid-December, and only 44% wanted either to wait indefinitely for sanctions or to withdraw immediately from Saudi Arabia, down nine percentage points from the same December poll.

Gallup's overall analysis of polling results in January was much more positive about public support for the Bush administration's effort than it had been in December. The January analysis concluded that "The American people back President George Bush on the Persian Gulf situation at this tense point in history." It went on to note that "if war does break out, the United States will begin with the support of 50% to 60% of its citizens and with the opposition of little more than a third of the population."

American Support Surged During the War
Bush's decision to launch air strikes on January 16, the day after the deadline set by a U.N. resolution calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, prompted a surge in public support for the war effort. Typically, the public will rally around the president when he makes a decision as important as going to war, and in this case, the rally was immediate and widespread: by 80% to 15%, Americans expressed support for "the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq in order to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait." Another poll a week later found no ambivalence by the public about whether the situation was worth going to war over, as 71% of Americans said it was and just 24% said it was not -- a far cry from the evenly divided public measured by Gallup on this matter in the months leading up to the war.

Despite overwhelming support for the air strikes, their apparent success and the low casualties, Americans were still not ready to support a ground war. In a poll conducted February 7-10, after three weeks of bombing, only 17% of Americans felt "the United States and its allies should begin a ground attack soon to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait," while 74% said "we should hold off for now and continue to rely on air power to do the job."

A week later, a peace proposal offered by Saddam Hussein was immediately rejected by the U.S. and its allies, and the public concurred by a 79% to 13% margin. A few days after that, the Iraqis and Soviets offered a new peace proposal, also rejected by the U.S. and its allies. On February 22, Bush set a deadline of noon the next day for the Iraqis to begin immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, a proposal supported by 84% of Americans and opposed by just 10%, according to a one-night Gallup/CNN poll. Nevertheless, that same poll showed that Americans were still reluctant to start a ground war, as 46% said that even if Saddam Hussein did not comply with the deadline requirements, the U.S. and its allies should continue with air strikes only, while 41% said the U.S. and its allies should begin the ground war if the deadline was not met.

The ground war was launched the next day as promised by Bush, and a Gallup one-night poll on February 24 showed another rally effect, as 84% of Americans supported the decision, while just 11% were opposed. Two days later the war was over, and American support for that effort has remained strong ever since. The following year, two polls in January and February showed an average of 63% of Americans who said the war was worth fighting, and just 35% who said it was not -- very similar to the numbers found by the most recent Gallup poll on the 10th anniversary of that war.

Americans Willing to Start War to Remove Saddam Hussein From Power
From the beginning of his efforts to oppose the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush personalized the war by his verbal condemnation of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Given the absolute political power exercised by Saddam Hussein in his country, such attacks seemed justified and resonated well with the American public. In most polls conducted from 1991 until now, a majority of the public has expressed support for efforts to remove the Iraqi leader from power, even to the point of initiating another war.

Immediately after the air-strike phase of the war began, a Gallup poll found only 30% of Americans saying that military action should stop when Iraq was forced out of Kuwait, while 65% said it should not stop until Saddam Hussein was also removed from power. A week later, a new Gallup poll found the same degree of support for removing the Iraqi leader from power. In early February, when reminded of the U.N. resolutions that required an end to the war when Iraq was out of Kuwait, Americans still wanted to go "beyond the U.N. resolutions" and -- by a margin of 62% to 34% -- continue fighting until Saddam Hussein was removed from power or until his war-making capability was destroyed, rather than stop once the Iraqis were out of Kuwait.

That public commitment to continue the war until Saddam Hussein was removed from power seemed somewhat faint-hearted, however, as a Gallup poll a week later found that Americans would favor an immediate cease-fire by the U.S. and its allies, if Saddam Hussein agreed to withdraw all Iraqi troops from Kuwait. And a poll conducted right after the cease-fire was declared found only 46% of Americans saying "the United States and its allies should have continued fighting until Saddam Hussein was removed from power," while about the same number -- 48% -- disagreed.

When the same question was asked the following July, however, support for going after the Iraqi leader had rebounded, as Americans now said that fighting should have continued until Saddam Hussein was out of power, by 76% to 20%. Similar results were found in Gallup polls in October 1994 and November 1997.

After news stories in June 1993 revealed that Iraq had set in motion an assassination attempt of former President George Bush, the Clinton administration bombed an Iraqi intelligence site in retaliation. In the wake of that action, a Gallup poll found Americans in support of sending American troops back to the Persian Gulf in order to remove Saddam Hussein from power by 70% to 27%, the largest margin in favor of that kind of action ever measured by Gallup. When asked directly if the U.S. should take the "extreme" step of assassinating Saddam Hussein, support was considerably lower, but still with a majority in favor -- 53% to 37%.

Racial and Gender Gaps Found on War Issue
The current results about whether it was worthwhile to fight the war show major differences between black and white Americans, and between men and women. While whites say the war was worthwhile by a margin of 67% to 27%, blacks take the opposite point of view by 51% to 37%. Indeed, on virtually all questions about U.S. participation in the Persian Gulf War (as with most military conflicts) asked by Gallup over the years, the views of blacks and whites reflect deep differences -- with blacks generally much more opposed than whites. By a two-to-one margin, 61% to 33%, blacks today oppose sending American troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power, while whites express support by 56% to 38%. During the Persian Gulf War, similar divisions were found.

The "gender gap" is not as pronounced as the racial gap, but consistently Gallup has found significant differences between men and women on whether the war was worth fighting. The current poll shows that men feel the war was worthwhile by 74% to 24%, while women agree by the much smaller margin of 53% to 37%. In the months leading up to the Gulf War, women consistently expressed mild opposition or ambivalence, while men generally expressed strong support.

There is no gender gap, however, on the question of sending troops to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Survey Methods

Current results from The Gallup Poll are based on telephone interviews with -- 1,016 -- national adults, aged 18+, conducted February 19-21, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Now thinking back to the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991,

All in all, do you think the situation in the Persian Gulf region was worth going to war over or not?



Yes, worth it

No, not worth it

No opinion






2001 Feb 19-21





1992 Feb 6-9




1992 Jan 6-9




Would you favor or oppose sending American troops back to the Persian Gulf in order to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?





No opinion






2001 Feb 19-21





1993 Jun 29-30




1992 Mar 30-Apr 5 ^






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