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Monday, December 19, 2011

American Public Opinion and Iraq

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta officially declared an end to the war in Iraq last Thursday, marking the end of the U.S. involvement in that country that began over eight and a half years ago.

A review of available data suggests that Americans are “OK” with the decision to end the war.

Most directly, 75% of Americans in an October Gallup poll said they supported President Barack Obama’s decision to end the war by the end of this year. Republican President George W. Bush began the war, so it is perhaps not surprising to find that Republicans were slightly more likely to disapprove than approve of the decision to withdraw by the end of the year. That may reflect, in part, the fact that the poll question included the reference to “President Obama’s” decision. Republicans, as a rule, are more negative than the national average about most things that Democratic President Obama does. Independents and Democrats overwhelmingly approved the decision to get out of Iraq.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney contend that history will judge their decision to go into Iraq a success. That point has not yet arrived. A majority of Americans have, on average, considered the Iraq war to have been a mistake each year since 2005.

The tradition of asking Americans whether U.S. involvement in a war was a mistake or not goes back to August 1950, when Dr. George Gallup asked the American public “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?” At that point, 20% said “yes,” and 65% said “no.”

Since asking that question about Korea, we have asked it about the Vietnam war, the first Persian Gulf War (1991), sending military forces to Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (beginning in November 2001), and Iraq.

That first “mistake” question about Iraq came in a March 24-25, 2003, survey, just a few days after George W. Bush announced to the public that the U.S. was beginning the invasion. We found 23% of Americans said “yes,” and 75% said “no.”

It is useful to compare this 23% to the aforementioned 20% who initially thought Korea was a mistake, the 24% who said that Vietnam was a mistake when Gallup first asked about it in late August/early September 1965, the 16% who said that the Persian Gulf War was a mistake just after the initial air attacks began there in January 1991, and the 9% who thought Afghanistan was a mistake in Gallup’s first poll asking that question. (Unfortunately, the question was not asked after Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. became involved in World War II, but it is reasonable to assume that few Americans at that point would have declared it a mistake.)

In short, Americans generally give the benefit of the doubt to U.S. leaders when a war is initiated. Relatively few criticize U.S. involvement in a war as it is beginning.

That changes as wars progress.

The percentage of Americans saying the Iraq War was a mistake rose slowly after Gallup’s initial March 2003 survey into the 40% range, and by June of 2004 had risen to 54%, breaking through the majority barrier for the first time.

This is significant because it happened so quickly.

The path in Vietnam was somewhat different. As noted, 24% of Americans said that war was a mistake in an Aug. 27-Sept. 1, 1965 Gallup poll, the first time that question was asked, and about five months after President Lyndon B. Johnson began significant escalation of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. The “mistake” percentage rose into the 30% range in 1966, reached into the 40% range in late 1967 and throughout the first part of 1968, and then burst through the majority level in Gallup’s Aug. 7-12, 1968 survey.

If you do the math and consider March 1965 as the official starting point of the major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, you see that it took three years and five months for a majority of Americans to say they opposed the Vietnam War.

Korean? As noted, 20% said it was a mistake in August 1950, just as the U.S. ground troop involvement began after the invasion of South Korea by North Koreans. That jumped to 49% by January 1951 -- but not 50% -- and fluctuated some, dropping to as low as 37% in the summer of 1951, and finally reached 51% in a February-March 1952 survey. That majority “mistake” percentage came about one year and eight months after U.S. involvement in Korea began.

As noted previously, it took about one year and three months for a majority of Americans to say they opposed the Iraq War.

Thus, the Iraq War has a legacy of generating majority opposition more quickly than at least the other two major wars since WWII -- Vietnam and Korea.

Support for the Iraq war changed over time after June and July 2004. The mistake percentage fell down, rose again above 50% in January 2005, dropped, and then from October 2005 on has consistently been above 50%. The high point for the “mistake” percentage for the Iraq war was 63% in April 2008, in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign. The last time Gallup asked the question, in August of 2010, the mistake percentage had settled down to 55%.

Was the Iraq war worth it? In August 2010, Gallup found that while a majority of Americans thought that Iraq was better off because of the U.S. involvement there, a majority also thought that history would judge the U.S. invasion and involvement in Iraq a failure.

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