March 15, 2005 — -- Two years after the shooting began, Americans are deeply conflicted about the costs and benefits of the war with Iraq -- and broadly reluctant to enter into any similar military confrontation with either Iran or North Korea.
The public sees some benefits of the war -- but more for Iraq than for the United States, and, for many, not enough to justify its costs. Seven in 10 in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll call the level of U.S. casualties in Iraq unacceptable, and 53 percent, on balance, say the war was not worth fighting.
This poll finds a huge comedown from public opinion before, during and just after the main fighting two years ago. President Bush's wartime job approval rating reached 77 percent; it's 50 percent now. His approval specifically on Iraq was 75 percent as the main fighting ended; it's 39 percent now, a career low.
The number of people who say the war was worth fighting has fallen from 70 percent during the war to 45 percent now. And the number who say it has put the United States in a stronger position in the world has fallen from 52 percent to 28 percent. (It was a vastly higher 84 percent after the 1991 Gulf War.) Indeed more now say the war left the United States weaker (41 percent) than stronger.
Most, 57 percent, also say the Bush administration lacks a clear plan for handling the situation overall. And 64 percent say the administration lacks a clear plan specifically for eventually withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq.
Nonetheless, the successful Iraqi elections in January appear to have helped moderate what was an increasingly negative trend in views of the war. While 54 percent say the United States is bogged down in Iraq, that's down from a peak of 65 percent last spring. And whatever the difficulties, few Americans -- just 12 percent -- call for an immediate pullout of U.S. forces.
One clear finding of this ABC News/Washington Post poll is that the public has little desire for battles elsewhere. While nearly three-quarters call North Korea a threat to the United States (and 54 percent call it a "serious" threat), more than three-quarters oppose a military confrontation to force Pyongyang to relinquish nuclear weapons.
North Korea's apparent possession of those weapons may be one reason most Americans rule out a military option, but not the prime one: Two-thirds also oppose military action against Iran, which is not believed yet to possess nuclear arms.
A non-military option gets a more mixed result: Fifty-one percent favor offering financial incentives, such as aid money or more trade, to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Fewer, 44 percent, favor offering such incentives to Iran. That may have to do with the lower perceived threat from Iran; 62 percent see it as a threat, but a good deal fewer, 39 percent, call it a serious threat.
The lack of appetite for military action against either North Korea or Iran underscores the extent to which Iraq has been a special case in U.S. public opinion. Saddam Hussein was seen as a particular villain ever since the Gulf War; majorities supported invading Iraq and overthrowing him as long ago as the mid-'90s, long before the threat of terrorism came clear on Sept. 11, 2001.
Americans clearly view the January election as a positive development in Iraq. Fifty-six percent now express confidence the election will produce a stable Iraqi government, up sharply from 42 percent before the vote was held. Six in 10 think the vote will speed the day U.S. forces can be withdrawn.
In another positive, 44 percent say they think the war has improved the chances that democracy will spread in the Mideast; just 9 percent say it's lessened the odds.
Again, though, Iraqis, rather than Americans, are seen as the main beneficiaries -- and for many Americans that's insufficient justification for the costs of war.
On the positive side for the United States, 52 percent believe the war has contributed to the nation's long-term security -- a majority, but not a large one; and just 29 percent think it's contributed "a great deal." By contrast, far more, 67 percent, think the Iraqi people are better off as a result of the war, and 74 percent think they'll be better off in the future.
Fewer, though still a majority, seem to think the Iraqis appreciate it: Fifty-four percent think most of the Iraqi people support what the United States is trying to do there. Thirty-nine percent think not.
As noted, some bottom-line attitudes on the war, while not broadly supportive, are at least stable. That's better than it might have been for the administration, which had been threatened (and could be again) by deteriorating views of the situation.
While 53 percent say the war was not worth fighting, for example, that's been roughly stable since December. (In a similar question, 51 percent call the war "a mistake," about the same as in a Gallup poll in January.)
While 70 percent say the level of casualties is unacceptable, that has been stable since June, when it increased from the low- to mid-60s. The long-term security number likewise is stable, as is the number who say the administration lacks a clear plan for handling the situation.
There's also stability in perceptions of the administration's veracity as it prepared for war: Fifty-five percent think the Bush administration told the American public what it believed to be true. Fewer -- but still a substantial 43 percent -- believe instead that the administration "intentionally misled" the public in making its case for war.
The issue of veracity also plays out in views of weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda. Fifty-six percent of Americans still think Iraq did possess WMDs shortly before the war, though none has been found; that's sharply down, though, from the 89 percent who thought before the war that it had such weapons.
It's worth noting that, for most Americans, finding WMDs was never a prerequisite for war. In a prewar ABC/Post poll, 20 percent said the war could be justified only if such weapons were found; 63 percent said it could be justified even if not. (The rest, 14 percent, said it couldn't be justified in either case.)
Similarly, six in 10 Americans also continue to think that before the war Iraq provided direct support to the al Qaeda terrorist group. But nearly four in 10 say this is their "suspicion only;" just two in 10 believe there's been any solid evidence of it. And again, there's no evidence that any alleged al Qaeda link formed the basis of public support for the war, since most Americans favored overthrowing Saddam years earlier, long before al Qaeda became broadly known.
As long has been the case, there are huge partisan and ideological divisions in views on Iraq. Most fundamentally, 81 percent of Republicans say the war was worth fighting, as do 69 percent of conservatives; that falls to about four in 10 independents and moderates, and about two in 10 Democrats and liberals.
There also are gender, racial and regional differences: Among men, who tend to be more supportive of military action, 51 percent say the war was worth fighting; that falls to 40 percent of women. While 50 percent of whites say the war was worth fighting, just 29 percent of nonwhite Americans agree. And in the so-called "red" states that Bush won in the 2004 election, 51 percent call the war worth fighting -- barely a majority, but more than the 39 percent who say so in the Kerry "blue" states.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 10-13, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
You can find more ABC News polls in our Poll Vault.