Public approval of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq has diminished considerably since his peak rating of 76% in mid-April. Following months of decline, only 47% of Americans in early October* approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, and, for the first time, more of them disapproved than approved.
The change is not surprising given the ongoing attacks on coalition forces in Iraq that, at the time of the survey, had claimed the lives of almost 180 U.S. soldiers in the "postwar" period. Bush declared major combat over on May 1. That death toll has since mounted to 240. Were it not for the postwar phase, public opinion about Bush's handling of the Iraq situation would compare favorably with how previous presidents have been rated for their handling of other U.S. military ventures.
When looking just at the six weeks U.S. forces were engaged in major combat in Iraq -- from March 20 to May 1 -- Bush's approval rating for his handling of Iraq averaged 73%. That comes fairly close to the average approval rating of 84% that Bush's father earned for his handling of the 1991 Persian Gulf War from Jan. 17 to Feb. 27, 1991.
Immediately after the Gulf War, approval of the senior Bush's handling of the situation in the Persian Gulf region shot up to 92%. Six months later, 64% of Americans still said they approved. By contrast, five months after the 2003 Iraq war, only 47% of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Iraq. The difference is that the elder Bush had limited postwar military operations in Iraq. After the war, he was mainly being judged on the success of the original military campaign. For the current president, his performance on Iraq is continually being re-evaluated because of the increasingly challenging situation there.
On this basis, the 2003 war with Iraq may look less like the 1991 Gulf War and more like the war recent presidents have avoided repeating: Vietnam.
While Americans initially supported the Vietnam War and approved of President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the conflict, the protracted nature of the campaign and the high U.S. casualties eventually turned the public against it. The mounting unpopularity of Vietnam is evident in the sloping line that represents Johnson's approval ratings for his handling of the war.
In December 1965, 56% of Americans said they approved of Johnson's handling of Vietnam and 26% disapproved. In February 1968, Gallup's last measure of public approval of Johnson on Vietnam before he announced he would not run for reelection, these figures were nearly reversed: Only 32% of Americans approved of his handling of Vietnam and 57% were opposed.
Public opinion about Vietnam shifted considerably after Richard Nixon took office in 1969, as his administration eventually became associated with reducing the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and ultimately with brokering a peace deal with the North Vietnamese. So while Americans were more likely under Nixon's administration than under Johnson's to believe the Vietnam War was a mistake, they were more likely to approve of the job Nixon was doing. From March 1969 through January 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, Nixon's approval rating on Vietnam averaged 52%, with just 33% disapproving.
Reagan's Central America Policy
Another military matter that never earned high marks for the president was Ronald Reagan's policy of providing military assistance to anti-communist forces in Central America. This was eventually linked to the biggest scandal of his administration: the Iran-Contra affair. But even before the details of that began to surface in late 1986, only about one in three Americans generally approved of Reagan's handling of Central America (including his handling of El Salvador and Nicaragua, specifically).
By contrast, in several cases when U.S. presidents have launched military operations that have been fairly narrow in scope and involved the use of overwhelming force to achieve the objective, Americans have been supportive.
The 1991 Gulf War certainly fits this description. So does the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada launched by Reagan to remove a Marxist dictator from power. The attack began on Oct. 25, 1983, and by mid-December, U.S. forces were on their way home. A mid-November 1983 Gallup Poll found 59% of Americans approving of the way Reagan was handling Grenada; 32% disapproved.
"Operation Desert Fox"
Similarly, in December 1998, Gallup found nearly three in four Americans (74%) approving of a joint U.S.-British attack on Iraq launched in response to Iraq's failure to comply with U.N. weapons inspection requirements, and designed to damage Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities. The following month, 56% of Americans said they approved of the way President Bill Clinton was handling the situation in Iraq.
Although a much larger undertaking than either Grenada or the 1998 air strikes against Iraq, a solid majority of Americans continually approved of the way Clinton handled the situation in Kosovo during the 1999 NATO-sponsored action. American troops made up a large share of the NATO force, and U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe, led the military operation that lasted approximately three months, from March to June 1999. In this period, between 55% and 61% of Americans consistently approved of the way Clinton was handling the situation in Kosovo. The fact that no U.S. soldiers were killed in combat during that war may have been an important factor in that support.
Gallup polling on U.S. involvement in Somalia does not provide a complete picture of public reaction to that protracted engagement. However, it appears that despite fairly broad public support for U.S. involvement at the beginning when President George H. W. Bush initiated the mission, public opinion eventually turned against it. In October 1993, only 32% of Americans said they approved of Clinton's handling of Somalia; 59% disapproved.
At the conclusion of major combat in May, Bush's approval rating for his handling of Iraq was impressively high, exceeded only by his father's ratings in the 1991 Gulf War. As of one month ago, his approval rating on Iraq was more comparable to Nixon's and Johnson's ratings on Vietnam toward the middle of that war (from about June 1966 through May 1969). While the period of major combat in Iraq was over in less than two months, the relatively high rate of U.S. casualties since May has blurred the definition of the war's duration. While the total number of soldiers killed in combat since March falls far short of the number lost in Vietnam, it is still much higher than what Gallup found many Americans expected at the beginning of the war.
Americans seem inclined to give their president a favorable review for his handling of military operations when those engagements are highly focused, brief, involve few U.S. casualties -- or entail some combination of these factors. Postwar Iraq seems to be failing to meet all of those criteria.
According to Americans' reactions to past military engagements, this combination does not bode well for public ratings of Bush on Iraq.
*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 6-8, 2003. 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.