Iraq and the Costs of War

Aug 31, 2010 5:46pm

In marking the end of the combat mission in Iraq it’s worth noting how broadly unpopular the war became, and its profoundly negative impact on the presidency of George W. Bush – doing more than anything else to make him the most persistently unpopular president of our lifetimes. Early on, with the quick fall of Baghdad and the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln, as many as 70 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq was worth fighting. But as the violence continued, casualties rose and the war-justifying WMDs went unfound, that view worsened. By fall 2003 as few as 52 percent called the war worth fighting. In June 2004, for the first time in our polling, a majority, 52 percent, said the opposite – that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. After bouncing around the 50 percent mark that fall (leaving just enough room for Bush’s re-election) this went to a steady majority in December 2004 and has stayed there, continuously, ever since, peaking at 66 percent in April 2007. (It moderated but was still majority negative, 55 percent, in our most recent poll last month). Bush’s approval rating moved almost precisely in tandem with this view, proving the axiom that – with the possible exception of a severe economic downturn – hell hath no fury like an unpopular war. President Bush spent virtually his entire second term below 50 percent approval, a record in data back to Harry Truman, until, double-teamed by the economic crisis, he fell as low as 23 percent in October 2008, a point from the record set by Truman 56 years earlier.  
One other chart underscores the reliability of the maxim – showing the effect of unpopular wars on Truman and Lyndon Johnson’s popularity ratings, as well as Bush’s. As we’ve noted before, it’s a strong cautionary sign for Barack Obama as he manages the war in Afghanistan – a war that’s not become as unpopular as that in Iraq was, but one that nonetheless, in our last poll, 53 percent of Americans described as not worth its costs to the nation.   9/1 update: It occurs to me to add one more chart, showing the impact of the Iraq war not just on President Bush, but on his party. The GOP had enjoyed a generation of gains in partisan self-identification at the Democrats' expense for virtually a full generation, until finally, in 2003, they achieved perfect parity: On average in our polling that year, identical numbers of Americans identified themselves as Republicans and as Democrats. That was, by coincidence, the same year the United States invaded Iraq. And as the war turned unpopular and the then-president's popularity tumbled, look at what happened to Republican self-identification – the red line in the chart below.  
There's been fallout for the Democrats since, as the public's turned increasingly sour over the economy. But the Republicans have not benefited; given disaffection with both parties, it's independents who are now on the rise. And if the Democrats' problems can be traced to the economy, the Republicans' go back further – to public dismay with the war that's just now coming to a close.      

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