A Year After Iraq War, Most Americans Say Stay the Course

Posted March 23, 2004 at 1:20pm

The Washington Post report on its latest ABC News/Post poll states that President Bush has seen his support on Iraq fall to the lowest level of his presidency. The story noted that a bare majority, 52 percent, said the war was worth it. But drawing conclusions from those questions alone about public opinion on Iraq would be a mistake. [IMGCAP(1)]

Once Americans trust a president — and a solid majority trust President Bush on foreign policy — they give him substantial latitude. They don’t second-guess his judgments on a daily basis. They stick to their convictions, and those are often formed very early.

To return briefly to early 2003, in virtually every poll taken before the war, 60 percent or more supported the decision to go to war. About 20 percent were strongly opposed. For this 20 percent — the peace party — it did not matter if the United States had U.N. approval or the support of its allies. For them, it did not matter if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Interestingly, today, in several organizations’ trend questions, around 20 percent want U.S. troops out now. The early March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 24 percent want U.S. troops out as soon as possible and 26 percent within 18 months. But 48 percent said they “should stay as long as necessary to complete the process even if it takes five years.” None of the polls provides evidence of a desire to cut and run.

All recent polls show that majorities of Americans believe the United States did the right thing in going to war. Fifty-seven percent gave that response in the March 18-19 PSRA/Newsweek poll. Opinion is generally more negative on whether the war was worth it in terms of lives lost. Forty-two percent said it was worth the cost in terms of American lives in the latest CBS poll, while 51 percent said it was not.

Every poll taken immediately after the end of the war’s hot phase showed that Americans believed the peace would be more difficult than the war. For most Americans, the major challenges remain ahead. Most polls show around 10 percent saying things are going very well or very badly there. Of the remainder, most are moderately confident. This measured optimism stems in part from views of the military. Harris Interactive’s poll last week shows that Americans have higher levels of confidence in leaders of the military (62 percent) than in any of 14 other institutions.

In five polls taken since former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay’s report, majorities have continued to say that Iraq still has or had WMDs. Fifty-seven percent gave that response in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. This stubborn conviction comes from views formed about Hussein long ago. In May 1991, 31 percent told CBS News pollsters that the United States should have stopped fighting when Iraqi troops left Kuwait, but 63 percent said the country should have continued fighting until Hussein was removed. On the 10th anniversary of the first Gulf War, the responses were virtually identical. Long-standing negative views of Hussein prepared Americans to believe he was capable of producing or actually produced WMDs. They also explain why around 60 percent have told ABC/Post pollsters five times since the war ended that the war could be justified for reasons other than WMD.

Has the lack of WMD affected Bush’s credibility? In all the new polls, the president still gets high marks for his honesty and integrity, though in some, those are down from the beginning of his presidency. In a CBS question from mid-February, 50 percent said Bush had more integrity and honesty than most people in public life; just 14 percent say he has less. So pollsters don’t ask whether Bush lied. They ask about his administration. And here you get about 20 percent saying it lied. Did the administration exaggerate? Around 50 percent now say it did.

The March 5-7 Gallup, CNN, USA Today poll finds that 50 percent say the war with Iraq has made us safer from terrorism (37 percent less safe). What isn’t clear is whether Americans think Bush has a clear plan for handling the situation — people are evenly divided — or whether people buy the president’s argument that a functioning democracy in Iraq will lessen the threat of terror.

In the new ABC/Washington Post poll, 46 percent — a career low — approved of the way Bush is handling the situation there. In the Gallup poll, however, 54 percent thought Bush would do a better job of handling the situation there; 39 percent said Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) would.

Bottom line: Most Americans are inclined to carry on in Iraq for the time being.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute. Todd Weiner, a staff and research assistant at AEI, contributed to this column.