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American Public Opinion on Iraq: Five Conclusions

American Public Opinion on Iraq: Five Conclusions

A review of Americans' attitudes on the war in Iraq

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A number of extraordinary events last week underscored the position of Iraq as the most significant public policy issue facing the United States at this point in time. President Bush not only convened an all-day meeting of his top advisors at Camp David to review the Iraq situation, he also flew out in the middle of the night to appear in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Additionally, both the Senate and the House debated Iraq resolutions near the end of last week, with the Senate defeating a measure that would have dictated a specific withdrawal timetable, and the House passing a resolution that -- among other things -- explicitly rejected the idea of a timetable.

Pollsters have probably asked Americans more questions about the Iraq situation over the last three years than any other specific issue, and as a result a great deal is known about the American public's views on this controversial and important topic.

Here are five key points summarizing where the American public stands on the issue of Iraq at this time.

1. The majority of Americans -- albeit a small majority -- view the initiation of the war in Iraq as a mistake and say that, in retrospect, it has not been worth the costs.

Poll assessments of the basic decision to go to war in Iraq can vary based on two factors: the exact way in which the question is asked and what is happening in Iraq at the time of the survey.

In general, questions that explicitly spell out the costs of the war obtain more negative responses from the American public than those that do not.

Gallup has asked a basic question about the validity of war involvement stretching back to the 1950s: "In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to [name of country goes here], do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to [name of country here], or not?"

The latest result from this measure as applied to the Iraq war is from June 9-11, after the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but before the president's trip to Baghdad and last week's congressional debates. This poll shows that a slight majority -- 51% -- say the war in Iraq was a mistake, while 46% say it was not.

Public opinion in response to this measure has varied significantly since the war began in March 2003. Americans were highly likely to say that the war was not a mistake just after the war began, but by June 2004, the percentage criticizing involvement had moved above the majority level. Opinion on the war became more positive in September 2004, after the Republican presidential convention, moved back above 50% by January of the next year, and has fluctuated from that point forward. The most negative reading on this measure came in September 2005, when 59% said that it had been a mistake to get involved in Iraq, and only 39% said that it had not. The current 51% reading is a drop from the 57% recorded in two polls in March and April of this year.

The last time less than a majority of Americans said that involvement was a mistake was in December 2005.

Two recent questions asked in NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CBS News polls show more negative results:

Question Wording

Worth It

Not Worth It

Source

%

%

When it comes to the war in Iraq, do you think that removing Saddam Hussein from power was or was not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost of the war?

40

52

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, June 9-12, 2006

Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq, or not?

33

62

CBS News Poll, June 10-11, 2006

In both of these questions the respondent is, in essence, given an explicit rationale for opposing the war. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, respondents were given this wording: "… not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost of the war," and in the CBS News poll they were given "… worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq …" The more negative response to the CBS News poll question is most probably the result of the fact that the only positive rationale offered was "… the result of the war …", while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll included the phrase "… removing Saddam Hussein from power ..."

Regardless of wording, however, a majority of respondents to both of these questions say that the war was not worth it.

2. About half or slightly more of Americans believe that the Iraqi people may eventually be better off as a result of the war, but there is fairly widespread agreement that the broader aims of the war -- helping in the fight against terrorism and spreading democracy to the Middle East -- have not been accomplished. Americans in particular recognize that the war in Iraq has diminished the image of the United States around the world.

Gallup recently asked Americans to ponder a list of groups and objectives, and to indicate whether the war had made each better off, worse off, or had made no difference. As reviewed in a recent analysis [see related item] in no instance did a majority of Americans believe that the groups or objectives had been made better off as a result of the war, although just slightly less than half did say that the Iraqi people are better off as a result of the war. Still, this is not necessarily a strong result given the degree to which the administration has discussed the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein as a significant achievement for the Iraqi people. Less than a majority believe that the rest are better off as a result of the war.

Earlier this spring, Gallup asked about the impact of the war on Iraq in a slightly different way, and found a slightly more positive read, with over two-thirds of Americans saying that Iraq will be better off in the long run as a result of the U.S. and British invasion.

In your opinion, is Iraq -- [ROTATED: much better off, somewhat better off, somewhat worse off, (or) much worse off] -- than before the U.S. and British invasion?

Much better
off

Somewhat better off

Somewhat worse off

Much worse
off

SAME (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

2006 Mar 10-12 ^

19

48

18

12

1

2

2004 May 21-23

27

45

16

8

1

3

(vol.) = Volunteered response

^ Asked of a half sample

In your opinion, in the long run, will Iraq be -- [ROTATED: much better off, somewhat better off, somewhat worse off, (or) much worse off] -- than before the U.S. and British invasion?

Much better
off

Somewhat better off

Somewhat worse off

Much worse
off

SAME (vol.)

No
opinion

2006 Mar 10-12 ^

30%

38

18

8

2

3

(vol.) = Volunteered response

^ Asked of a half sample

Thus, it appears possible that a majority -- perhaps even a substantial majority -- of Americans may at some point agree that Iraq per se is better off as a result of the U.S. intervention in that country. But at this point, it appears less likely that a majority of Americans will agree that other objectives of the war as stated by the administration have been accomplished.

3. There is no clear-cut majority guidance from the American people to their elected representatives about what to do now in Iraq. About as many Americans oppose a timetable for withdrawal as favor it.

Newly appointed White House spokesman Tony Snow this past Sunday on Fox News Sunday reinforced the oft-stated administration position that decisions on the war (and other policy matters) are not made on the basis of public opinion: "… the president -- and I've heard him say this many times. You can't conduct the war based on public opinion polls. You have to do it as commander-in-chief on the basis of what is the right thing to do. Let me give you an example. A lot of people seem to argue that, you know, we need to set a timetable, we need to get out. You've got to keep in mind the situation in Iraq is critical in a lot of ways. Iraq is not the theater in the war on terror. It is one of many places in the larger war on terror."

In this situation, the admonition from Snow against governing by polls is not needed. The polls do not show that the majority of Americans strongly favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, nor for that matter do they show that Americans want an explicit timetable for withdrawal. The public is quite divided.

This is Gallup's most recent question on this issue.

Here are four different plans the U.S. could follow in dealing with the war in Iraq. Which ONE do you prefer -- [ROTATED: withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately, withdraw all troops by June 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]?

Withdraw immediately

Withdraw in 12 months' time

Withdraw, take as many years as needed

Send more troops

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2006 Jun 9-11

17

32

42

6

3

2006 Mar 10-12

19

35

39

4

3

2005 Nov 11-13

19

33

38

7

3

As can be seen, Americans are split right down the middle. Forty-nine percent want an immediate withdrawal or a deadline of 12 months, but 48% say that the withdrawal should take as long as is needed, or that the United States should send more troops.

Other polls show similar results. A recent CBS News poll, for example, found that 48% agreed that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq as long as needed in order to make sure it is a stable democracy even if that takes a long time, while 46% agreed that U.S. troops should leave as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable.

Should the United States troops stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy, even if it takes a long time, or should U.S. troops leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable?

Prior to 6/04: Should the United States troops stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy, even if that takes a long time, or should U.S. troops turn over control to Iraqis as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable?

Stay as Long
as It Takes

Leave
ASAP

Unsure

6/10-11/06

48%

46

6

4. Americans' views of the war in Iraq are extraordinarily polarized on the basis of politics.

The basic idea that the public's views on policy issues are sharply divided along partisan lines is not startling or new, but it is important to reiterate the degree to which this holds true in terms of the war in Iraq.

On the basic "mistake" question reviewed previously, for example, the views of Republicans and Democrats are essentially mirror images of one another. Only 19% of Republicans in Gallup's latest survey say that it was a mistake to have become involved in Iraq, while 79% say it was not. Among Democrats, 78% say it was a mistake, while 20% say it was not. This is about as polarized as we find opinion on major policy issues.

Some of this polarization arises from the fact that this war is, to an unusual degree, "Bush's war," given that the administration essentially created the rationale for the war and pursued it despite the absence of a dramatic precipitating event immediately preceding the war. This puts the war on a different front than the Korean War, for example, which originated as an almost instant response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. Even the controversial Vietnam War was less of a partisan war than Iraq. A Democratic president was responsible for the escalation of the war, but it continued for years under the subsequent Republican administration.

Also, unlike public policy issues in which the average American has some personal exposure and life experience (such as abortion, race relations, gay rights, healthcare, etc.), Americans are almost totally dependent on obtaining information about the war in Iraq from others. In situations like these, it is perhaps not surprising that Americans would rely on guidance and direction from party leaders, thus increasing overall polarization.

5. Americans continue to view the Iraq war as the most important problem facing the country today and believe that it should be the top priority for Congress and the administration.

The fact that the Bush administration and Congress spent a substantial amount of time last week reviewing and debating the war is presumably good news for the average American. There is no other issue that Americans believe is more important for these governmental entities to be debating and discussing. Iraq has been the issue at the top of the list of Gallup's monthly assessment of the most important problem facing the country since March 2004, and regularly appears at the top of the list of governmental priorities from the public's perspective.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 1-4, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects 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.

In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?

Yes, a mistake

No, not

No opinion

Iraq

%

%

%

2006 Jun 9-11

51

46

2

2006 Apr 7-9

57

42

1

2006 Mar 10-12 ^

57

42

1

2006 Feb 28-Mar 1

55

43

2

2006 Feb 9-12 ^

55

42

3

2006 Jan 6-8 ^

50

47

3

2005 Dec 16-18

52

46

2

2005 Dec 9-11

48

50

2

2005 Nov 11-13 ^

54

45

1

2005 Oct 28-30

54

45

1

2005 Oct 21-23

49

49

2

2005 Sep 16-18

59

39

2

2005 Sep 8-11

53

46

1

2005 Aug 28-30

53

46

1

2005 Aug 5-7 ^

54

44

2

2005 Jul 22-24

46

53

1

2005 Jun 24-26

53

46

1

2005 Apr 29-May 1 ^

49

48

3

2005 Mar 18-20 ^

46

51

3

2005 Feb 25-27

47

51

2

2005 Feb 4-6

45

55

*

2005 Jan 14-16

52

47

1

2005 Jan 7-9

50

48

2

2004 Nov 19-21

47

51

2

2004 Oct 29-31 ^

44

52

4

2004 Oct 22-24

47

51

2

2004 Oct 14-16

47

52

1

2004 Oct 9-10 ^

46

53

1

2004 Oct 1-3

48

51

1

2004 Sep 24-26

42

55

3

2004 Sep 3-5 ^

38

57

5

2004 Aug 23-25 ^

48

50

2

2004 Jul 30-Aug 1

47

51

2

2004 Jul 19-21

50

47

3

2004 Jul 8-11 ^

54

45

1

2004 Jun 21-23 ^

54

44

2

2004 Jun 3-6 ^

41

58

1

2004 May 7-9 ^

44

54

2

2004 Apr 16-18 ^

42

57

1

2004 Jan 12-15 ^

42

56

2

2003 Nov 3-5 ^

39

60

1

2003 Oct 6-8 ^

40

59

1

2003 Jul 7-9 ^

27

72

1

2003 Mar 24-25 ^

23

75

2

Afghanistan

2004 Jul 19-21

25

72

3

2002 Jan 7-9

6

93

1

2001 Nov 8-11

9

89

2

Yugoslavia

1999 Jun 4-5

43

53

4

1999 Apr 21

42

51

7

Persian Gulf War

1991 Jul 18-21

15

82

3

1991 Feb 28-Mar 3

10

87

3

1991 Feb 7-10

21

76

3

1991 Jan 30-Feb 2

18

80

2

1991 Jan 23-26

18

77

5

1991 Jan 17-20

16

80

4

1991 Jan 11-13

29

65

6

1991 Jan 3-6

30

61

9

1990 Dec 6-9

28

66

6

1990 Nov 29-Dec 2

29

66

5

1990 Nov 15-18

27

65

8

1990 Nov 8-11

27

68

5

1990 Nov 2-4

25

67

8

1990 Aug 30-Sep 2

16

76

8

1990 Aug 23-26

18

76

6

1990 Aug 16-19

17

75

8

1990 Aug 30-Sep 2

16

76

8

1990 Aug 23-26

18

76

6

1990 Aug 16-19

17

75

8

1990 Oct 25-28

24

71

5

1990 Oct 18-21

26

67

7

1990 Oct 11-14

27

68

5

1990 Oct 3-4

21

71

8

1990 Sep 27-30

20

73

7

1990 Sep 14-16

18

73

10

1990 Sep 10-11

19

76

5

Vietnam War

2000 Nov 13-15

69

24

7

1995 Apr 21-24

71

23

6

1990 Mar 15-18

74

22

4

1973 Jan 12-15

60

29

11

1971 May 14-17

61

28

11

1971 Jan 8-11

60

31

9

1970 May 21-26

56

36

8

1970 Apr 2-7

51

34

15

1970 Jan 15-20

57

32

11

1969 Sep 17-22

58

32

10

1969 Jan 23-28

52

39

9

1968 Sep 26-Oct 1

54

37

9

1968 Aug 7-12

53

35

12

1968 Apr 4-9

48

40

12

1968 Feb 22-27

49

42

9

1968 Feb 1-6

46

42

12

1967 Dec 7-12

45

46

9

1967 Oct 6-11

47

44

9

1967 Jul 13-18

41

48

11

1967 Apr 19-24

37

50

13

1967 Jan 26-31

32

52

16

1966 Nov 10-15

31

52

17

1966 Sep 8-13

35

48

17

1966 May 5-10

36

49

15

1966 Mar 3-8

26

59

15

1965 Aug 27-Sep 1

24

60

16

Korean War

2000 Jun 6-7

34

47

19

1953 Jan 11-16

36

50

14

1952 Oct 17-22

43

37

19

1952 Oct 9-14

43

37

20

1952 Feb 28-Mar 5

51

35

14

1951 Aug 3-8

42

48

11

1951 Jun 16-21

43

40

17

1951 Apr 16-21

37

45

18

1951 Mar 26-31

45

43

12

1951 Feb 4-9

49

41

9

1951 Jan 1-5

49

38

13

1950 Aug 20-25

20

65

15

^ Asked of a half sample

AFGHANISTAN WORDING: Do you think the United States made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan, or not?

YUGOSLAVIA WORDING: In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Yugoslavia, do you think the United States made a mistake sending military forces to fight in Yugoslavia?

PERSIAN GULF WAR WORDING (Feb. 28-Mar 3, 1991-Jul. 18-21, 1991): In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to the Persian Gulf region, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to the Persian Gulf region, or not?

PERSIAN GULF WAR WORDING (Aug. 16-19, 1990-Feb. 7-10, 1990): In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Saudi Arabia, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Saudi Arabia, or not?

VIETNAM WAR WORDING (1990-2000): Looking back, do you think the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?

VIETNAM WAR WORDING (1965-1973): In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?

KOREAN WAR WORDING (2000): Based on what you have heard or read, do you think the United States made a mistake in going into the war in Korea, or not?

KOREAN WAR WORDING (Feb. 1951-Jan. 1953): Do you think the United States made a mistake in going into the war in Korea, or not?

KOREAN WAR WORDING (Aug. 1950-Jan. 1951): In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Korea, do you think the United States made a mistake in deciding to defend Korea, or not?

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