Restoring Order Balances Bush Criticism


June 27, 2005 — -- A sense of obligation balances negative public views on Iraq: Despite broad concerns and sharp criticism of the administration's performance, nearly six in 10 Americans say U.S. forces should remain in place until civil order has been restored there.

That expression of resolve works to President Bush's advantage as he prepares to address the nation on Iraq, as does a slight improvement in some bottom-line measures. But steep challenges remain: Recriminations against his administration have jumped, with a majority for the first time saying it "intentionally misled" the public in going to war, and nearly three-quarters saying it underestimated the challenges involved.

A record 57 percent also now say the administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence that pre-war Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Views such as these cut to the administration's basic credibility and competence, vital commodities as Bush tries to turn public opinion in a more favorable direction. He speaks tomorrow night, the first anniversary of the handover to an interim Iraqi government.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Bush's overall position isn't enviable. Not only do 51 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance, a record 40 percent disapprove "strongly" (compared with 27 percent who strongly approve). That exceeds career-high strong disapproval for his two immediate predecessors, President Clinton (33 percent strongly disapproved in fall 1994, shortly before his party lost control of Congress) and Bush's father (34 percent in summer 1992, shortly before he lost re-election).

On Iraq specifically, 56 percent disapprove of Bush's work, and 44 percent disapprove strongly. (Strong disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by 19 points.) A majority hasn't approved of his handling of the situation there since January 2004, shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein. On a more emotional level, nearly a quarter of Americans say they're "angry" about the war.

At the same time, while 53 percent say the war was not worth fighting, that's eased a bit from its record high, 58 percent early this month (a majority of Americans hasn't called the war worth fighting in more than a year, since April 2004, as the insurgency heated up). Similarly, 52 percent now say the war has improved long-term U.S. security, up five points from early June. And 53 percent are optimistic rather than pessimistic about the prospects for Iraq in the next year. These indicate incremental gains as a result of the administration's recent counteroffensive in laying out the war's value.

Other views show divided assessments in some bottom-line views. The public splits, 48 percent to 51 percent, on whether the war was "the right thing" or "a mistake." People divide, 47 percent to 52 percent, on whether it's going well or going badly. And the public splits by 48 percent to 51 percent on whether the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq. As in the past, political partisanship and ideology continue to run very strongly through these and related opinions.

None of these represents particularly good news for the administration, and indeed Bush still faces a wide range of doubts about U.S. policy and pronouncements. Sixty-nine percent call the level of U.S. casualties unacceptable and 62 percent say the United States is bogged down in Iraq. But it's about more than those: as noted, two-thirds or more say the U.S. military and the administration underestimated the difficulty of the war. And as many think the war has damaged military readiness and recruitment alike.

Majorities reject Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that the Iraqi insurgency is "in its last throes" (a quarter agree) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's prediction that victory in Iraq will be "a death knell for terrorism as we know it." Instead just 23 percent say defeating the insurgents in Iraq will do a "great deal" to defeat terrorism generally.

At the same time, 51 percent say the overall war on terrorism can be successful only if the United States restores civil order in Iraq -- a group that naturally is one of the likeliest to favor sticking it out.

Fifty-six percent see the war in Iraq as part of the broader war on terrorism, a basic administration position. But that's the fewest to date, down from a high of 77 percent during the main fighting in April 2003.

The public divides on other administration claims for the war, such as whether it's contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East (51 percent think so) or encouraged democracy in other Arab nations (49 percent). Just a quarter say the war has strengthened the United States' position in the world; that's down from 52 percent during the main fighting, and compares unfavorably with 84 percent after the Persian Gulf War.

Two-thirds think this war has damaged the United States' image abroad. And almost six in 10 still see long-term damage to U.S. relations with allies that opposed the war, such as France and Germany.

The public is far from demanding immediate withdrawal from Iraq; indeed a minority, 38 percent, say the level of U.S. forces should be decreased at all, down slightly from 44 percent in March. Just 13 percent favor an immediate pullout.

Instead there's an increased sense that U.S. forces will need to stay in Iraq for an extended period. In July 2003, 44 percent of Americans thought the troops could come home in about a year or less; now just 27 percent think so. And the number who see a stay of five years or longer has more than doubled, from 9 percent then to 23 percent now.

In another sign of division, however long they think U.S. forces have to stay in Iraq, 45 percent of Americans say it's "too long." And among those who think it'll be five years or more, a larger number -- 63 percent -- think it's too long.

As noted, many Americans differ with accounts of the Iraq war offered by two top administration officials, Cheney and Rice.

While Cheney recently said the insurgency is "in its last throes," most Americans say it's either holding steady in strength (53 percent) or getting stronger (24 percent); that leaves 22 percent who think it's weakening. And a net total of 25 percent think it's "on its last legs," equivalent to Cheney's "last throes" comment.

On Rice's statement, most, 53 percent, disagree that defeating the Iraqi insurgency will help defeat terrorism more generally. Moreover, only 23 percent say it would do "a great deal" to achieve that end. As many say defeating the insurgents would accomplish very little or nothing against terrorism more broadly.

Another result in this survey points to the law of unintended consequences, and its ability to complicate military missions. On top of their immediate concerns about casualties and prospects for the war, 65 percent of Americans think it's made it more difficult for the U.S. military to respond to conflicts elsewhere in the world. Among those who think so, seven in 10 call this a major problem.

Seventy-three percent of Americans also think the war has made it more difficult for the military to attract new recruits; among those who feel this way, two-thirds call this, too, a major problem.

The survey also underscores the extent of that recruitment challenge: Fifty-two percent of Americans say they would not advise a young person close to them to join the military -- 20 points higher than it was in a 1999 poll, before 9/11 and the nation's military response changed the equation on military service.

For all this, majorities see some positives. The elections in January helped; 61 percent think that event brought the United States closer to the day it can withdraw its forces from Iraq. Nonetheless, six in 10 also are not confident Iraq will have a stable, democratic government a year from now. That suggests the Iraqi elections brought a promise of progress, but without either assurance or speed.

Further, there's the fate and future of Iraqis themselves. Despite the ongoing suicide bombings targeting civilians in Iraq, nearly seven in 10 Americans think the Iraqi people are better off now than they were before the war. And 74 percent think they'll be better off in the long run.

That said, the overall optimism measured in this poll is pushed into a majority by Republicans, among whom an overwhelming 84 percent are optimistic about the situation in Iraq over the next year. Optimism dives to 46 percent among independents and 34 percent among Democrats. Similarly, 72 percent of conservatives are optimistic, compared with 51 percent of moderates and just three in 10 liberals.

Similar partisan and ideological divides play out in emotional ratings. Liberals feel more strongly about the way the administration is handling the situation: 45 percent of them are angry about it, while 27 percent of conservatives are "pleased" with the administration's approach. Naturally, anger peaks, at 49 percent, among people who feel strongly that the war was not worth fighting.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 23-26, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation was done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.