Today’s Defense Department report concluding that Saddam Hussein wasn’t in cahoots with al Qaeda after all again raises questions about the public’s perceptions in advance of the Iraq war – views that have been widely misanalyzed.
It’s become conventional wisdom that most Americans believed Saddam was backing al Qaeda, and that this mistaken belief was the prime agent in public support for war with Iraq. A deeper dig into the data suggests that neither is so.
We do have an array of poll results in which majorities said they thought Iraq actively supported Al Qaeda – 68 percent in an ABC/Post poll in January 2003, still 61 percent more than two years later. But is that what they “believed?”
Probing found not. In 2005 we asked those people if they thought there were “solid evidence” of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, “or is that your suspicion only?” Most said it was just their suspicion; a net of just two in 10 thought there’d been solid evidence of an Iraq-al Qaeda link. Suspicion is a far sight weaker than the affirmed, definitive belief that most analysis at the time suggested.
The next question is whether these suspicions created support for war with Iraq. Surely they helped it along; it’s easy to see how the notion of Iraqi involvement in terrorism would have gained new urgency after 9/11. But if 9/11 amplified these concerns, it didn’t create them. The reality is that suspicions about Saddam and terrorism long preceded that day – as did support for invading Iraq and removing him from power.
These stem, instead, from the conflict Saddam initiated a full decade earlier, by invading Kuwait. Shortly after the Gulf War began in January 1991, 65 percent of Americans said its final objective should not be removing Iraq from Kuwait, but removing Saddam from power. Ninety-three percent favored trying him for war crimes. Six in 10 said the war should end only with his ouster.
Tempers did not fade: Two years later, in 1993, 66 percent in an ABC News poll supported ousting Saddam, as did 70 percent in a Gallup poll. A Los Angeles Times poll phrased it negatively: "an all-out effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, at the risk of losing some American lives and upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East." Even with those consequences, 60 percent were in support.
Five years later it was the same; In 1998, 65 percent of Americans supported using military force to overthrow Saddam. After U.S. air strikes on Iraq that year, 75 percent called Saddam likely to respond by attempting to sponsor terrorism against the United States. In a Gallup poll, 96 percent viewed him unfavorably. And in a 1996 poll, 92 percent of Americans called Saddam "a genuine villain."
Clearly the Bush administration took full advantage of this longstanding public antipathy toward Saddam in making its case for war. But it's equally clear that public support for the war had deeper roots, dating from long before 9/11 or al Qaeda entered the public parlance.
What remains, of course, is not the roots of support for the war, but assessments of what’s followed. Those have been steady, and devastating to Bush's presidency. In the latest ABC/Post poll, given the costs versus the benefits of the war, 63 percent of Americans say it was not worth fighting. A majority’s said so, continuously, for the past three and a half years.