War in Iraq: The Five-Year View

Five years ago next week, 72 percent of Americans supported going to war with Iraq. Six weeks later, with Baghdad in hand and "major combat operations" declared over, 70 percent said it’d been worth it.

Today, half as many agree.

The change has been sobering – for the people of both countries, the world, and surely for George W. Bush, his popularity sapped by the now deeply unpopular conflict.

Sixty-three percent of Americans in an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this month said the war was not worth fighting, within sight of the high, 66 percent last spring. People who strongly oppose the war outnumber its strong supporters by 2-1. A majority hasn’t viewed it positively in three and a half years.

Attitudes seem locked, largely on partisan lines, in an equation that seems virtually immovable. Since April 2003, the ABC/Post poll has asked Americans to consider whether the war was worth fighting “considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits.” For those on each side, conclusions seem firmly set.

Support for the war is highest in the president’s own party; 68 percent of Republicans say it was worth fighting, a number that’s never fallen below 63 percent. Most of those Republicans, moreover – 52 percent – feel “strongly” that the war’s been worth it.

Among Democrats the numbers are more than reversed: Eighty-five percent say the war’s not been worth the cost; 72 percent feel that way strongly. And independents tend to agree, with 65 percent saying the war’s not been worth it.

The seeds of this division, if not its extent, were apparent at the start. In an ABC/Post poll the night after the war began, 90 percent of Republicans supported it, as did 73 percent of independents – compared with 51 percent of Democrats. And while 84 percent of Republicans called it the right time to attack, just 43 percent of Democrats agreed.

Given those divisions, we reported at the time that even while Americans broadly supported the war, “their views of its timing, and of George W. Bush’s handling of the conflict, are considerably weaker than public views at the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.”

As the conflict lengthened, disquiet grew – rapidly. Views that the war was worth fighting tumbled from 70 percent April 30, 2003 – the day before Bush’s visit to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” – to 57 percent three months later. It hit 52 percent that fall; by February 2004 it’d fallen under half; by September, it was there to stay.

The impact on Bush’s presidency has been powerful. His overall approval rating has declined in lockstep with views of the war. The day it began, 65 percent approved of Bush’s job performance overall (well below his father’s 80 percent when the Gulf War began with broader international consensus). Ten months later, the day support for the war first fell under a majority, Bush’s own job rating hit 50 percent. And today Bush is at 32 percent approval, matching his career low and below a majority for 38 months straight – a record unmatched since Harry Truman.

The closest parallel, though, is not to Truman but to the last president to hold office during an unpopular war, Lyndon B. Johnson. His average annual approval rating dropped each year from 1964 on, starting at 74 percent and ending at 42 percent four years later. Bush’s has followed a very similar path, albeit a longer one, from 73 percent approval in 2001-02 to 34 percent in the last year.

The recent reduction in violence in Iraq hasn’t changed the American public’s firmly fixed views on the war. Whatever the improvement, fewer than half, 43 percent, said earlier this month that the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order there. And while that's up from its low, 31 percent in December 2006, bottom-line views on the war itself are no better now than then.

Those findings underscore the reality that public assessments of war aren’t based solely on gains, such as the reduction of violence, but on the value of those gains versus their costs. And that’s the equation on which the Iraq war, five years on, has fallen far short in the public’s mind.

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