"At the beginning of the year," reports Susan Page of USA Today, "50% of Americans in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll said that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Through the year, views on that question have been fluid, bouncing above 50% and then dropping below it four times." -- According to Page, this means that "Successful elections [on Dec. 15] for the Iraqi National Assembly could sustain public support for the war and strengthen Bush's hand in countering increasingly aggressive criticism by Democrats." -- American public opinion on the Iraq war is following a pattern that is different from that observed in the Vietnam War. -- Then, there was a "steady erosion of support for the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s." -- The view that the war was a mistake "gradually increased from the Tet offensive in January 1968 until the last U.S. troops withdrew in 1973. Only once in 13 Gallup polls during that time did public opinion move in the other direction by a statistically significant margin." -- Reading this analysis, questions asked by Harold Pinter last week in accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature come to mind: " What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days -- conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?" -- So do Martin Luther King Jr.'s words on Apr. 4, 1967: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." -- For a recent discussion of the meaning of King's sentence for the U.S. in 2005, see Paul Street's "Think Piece: The Spiritual Death of a Nation," (.pdf) in the Black Commentator of Nov. 3, 2005....
VOTE MAY HAVE BIG IMPACT ON VIEWS OF IRAQ WAR
By Susan Page
December 14, 2005
WASHINGTON - President Bush isn't on the ballot in Baghdad, but he does have a lot riding on the Iraqi elections today -- including, perhaps, American support for the war that has defined his presidency.
Public opinion on Iraq has shifted repeatedly this year in response to U.S. casualties, upswings in violence, and political milestones. Successful elections for the Iraqi National Assembly could sustain public support for the war and strengthen Bush's hand in countering increasingly aggressive criticism by Democrats.
On the other hand, elections that are marred by violence or seem to stumble in the move toward democracy probably would fuel calls to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"For Bush, what's at stake is the ability to push ahead with this new plan to rally the public," says Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University. His study of wartime public opinion with colleague Peter Feaver has been tapped by the White House in recent weeks. "He's had a series of speeches which have framed the Iraq issue in a way that is likely to prop up support some, but the election is his chance to connect that to real events."
The power of presidential rhetoric, after all, has its limits.
"Generally, I don't think words are what matters," says John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of Wars, Presidents and Public Opinion. "It's what's happening."
At the beginning of the year, 50% of Americans in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll said that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Through the year, views on that question have been fluid, bouncing above 50% and then dropping below it four times. In 7 of 16 surveys, the shift in opinion was larger than the survey's margin of error that is, large enough to be more than the random variations in polling.
After the initial Iraqi elections on Jan. 30, views that the war was a mistake dropped to a yearlong low of 45% and stayed below 50% for three months as a government formed, albeit haltingly.
As violence by insurgents continued through the summer and questions intensified about the justification for the U.S. invasion, those seeing the war as a mistake increased to more than 50% from August through October. It reached an all-time high of 59% in mid-September.
As elections approach and Bush delivered a series of speeches defending the war, those viewing the decision to invade as a mistake dipped again, to 48%, in the survey taken Friday through Sunday. Opinions about the war at the end of the year are almost precisely where they were when the year began.
Even so, Bush faces growing pressure to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq -- from, among others, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, a hawkish Democrat and combat veteran. In January, 46% said the United States should withdraw some or all of its troops. That sentiment steadily grew through the year, to 64% in December.
That includes some who support the war: Close to half of those who say the war wasn't a mistake nonetheless want to see U.S. troops begin coming home now.
Americans are paying attention to Iraq -- nearly 6 of 10 say they are following news of the elections there closely -- and drawing sometimes contradictory conclusions about how the war is going and whether it's been worth the cost.
In the latest USA TODAY Poll, 63% said Iraq had made "real progress toward establishing a democratic government." But 55% predicted that the U.S. wouldn't be able to establish a stable democracy there.
"It's a very complicated picture, with people having conflicting views," says Andy Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center. "It's not simply thumbs-up or thumbs-down."
While there are parallels between the war in Iraq and the one in Vietnam more than a generation ago, the fluidity of public opinion toward Iraq contrasts with the steady erosion of support for the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, Americans' view that the Vietnam war was a mistake gradually increased from the Tet offensive in January 1968 until the last U.S. troops withdrew in 1973. Only once in 13 Gallup polls during that time did public opinion move in the other direction by a statistically significant margin.
Mueller argues that public opinion toward the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq have been driven in large part by U.S. casualties. Gelpi and Feaver, who has become a consultant to the White House, say the more important question is whether Americans think the war will succeed.
The distinction is more than academic. With casualties mounting, Mueller says any bump in support for the Iraq war is temporary. But if the prospect of success is the critical element, "the president has not inevitably lost public support for good," Gelpi says. Today's election, he says, could be a step toward rebuilding that.