The Big Shift: How Public Opinion Has Changed on Iraq

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

It's the one year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That makes it a very good time to review how public opinion on Iraq has evolved since the invasion, going from strong support of the war to the uncertain and anxious views that characterize the public today.

CBS News has usefully summarized some of the relevant data in a report, "Shifting Opinions on Iraq." The report points out that President Bush's overall approval rating has dropped 22 points over the past 11 months, from a sky-high 73 percent when U.S. troops entered Baghdad to 51 percent in the latest CBS News poll. Bush's approval rating on Iraq has also dropped precipitously, from 79 percent after the fall of Baghdad to 49 percent in the latest survey, a decline of 30 points.

What happened? After all, the Iraq army was beaten in short order and U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein in December. The impact of military victory and Saddam's capture were short-lived, however. As far as the public was concerned, these events did little to remedy the three big problems with our occupation of Iraq: ongoing casualties, financial costs and weapons of mass destruction (the abundance of the first two and the lack of the third).

It is these problems that have undercut – and continue to undercut – public support for the Iraq war and occupation. Consider the following negative views, compiled from CBS News polls:

• A majority of Americans say "the result of the war with Iraq" was not worth "the loss of American life and other costs" (51 percent to 42 percent).

• A majority of 55 percent also believe that, as a result of the war with Iraq, the U.S. is either less safe from terrorism (19 percent) or there has been no change (36 percent), with 42 percent saying that we are safer from terrorism.

• About six in 10 Americans question the Bush administration's truthfulness on Iraq. Sixty-one percent say that the Bush administration was either hiding elements (45 percent) or mostly lying (16 percent) about what they knew about Iraq's WMD while 59 percent say the administration intentionally exaggerated intelligence findings to build support for the war, rather than interpreted that intelligence accurately.

• And it's fascinating to note that, at this late date, 57 percent still think either that the Iraq threat could have been contained (45 percent) or that it wasn't a threat at all (12 percent), compared to 42 percent who believe Iraq's threat merited immediate military action.

Data from other public polls show the public believes that Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation, thinks the level of casualties the United States is sustaining is unacceptable, and strongly opposes the extra $87 billion that was allocated by the U.S. Congress last November for the Iraq occupation. Surveys also indicate that the public overwhelmingly believes that capturing Osama bin Laden and breaking up al-Qaeda should be the central front in the war on terrorism, not the struggle to stabilize Iraq.
So there's been quite a shift in public opinion since the euphoric days last April when the U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad and the statue of Saddam came down. Because of that shift, today the public has two big questions about Iraq and the war on terror for which it's seeking answers.

(1) How do we get out of Iraq? Americans want our nation to meet its commitment in Iraq; they reject the idea of a precipitate withdrawal that could let Iraq degenerate into total chaos. But the public wants to know how the casualty count can be drastically reduced, how the financial and military burden can be shared, and how the U.S. occupation can come to an eventual and successful close.

(2) How can we stop terrorism? The public was always unclear on the relationship between U.S. national security and the invasion of Iraq. The failure to find WMD in Iraq has underscored those doubts, as has the continuing failure to dismantle the al Qaeda terror network. The latter failure has, of course, been recently and bloodily illustrated by the March 11 train bombing in Spain.

Current Bush administration policy has no good answers to either one of these questions. It seems likely that public support for the Iraq occupation and for the administration's Iraq-centered approach to the war on terror will continue to ebb until good answers are produced.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.