April 10, 2003

60% War’s Going Very Well – 69% We Haven’t Won Yet

Bush's Ratings Rose Last Night

Summary of Findings

Pictures of cheering Baghdad crowds greeting U.S. forces notwithstanding, Americans are not popping champagne bottles quite yet. A Pew Research Center tracking survey over the past two nights finds a modest increase in the percentage believing that the military effort is going very well, compared to earlier this week. And most Americans (69%) continue to believe that it is too early to tell if the war has been won.

Further, by a 51% to 42% margin, Americans believe that it is necessary to kill or capture Saddam Hussein in order to win the war. The new poll also finds that optimism about the war’s outcome is tempered by the prevailing view that the U.S. and its allies will face a tough job in stabilizing Iraq. Fully 73% believe it will be a difficult job install a stable democratic government in the country.

In that regard, the public is divided over whether the United States or the United Nations should take the lead in establishing a government in Iraq after the war. By 62%-31%, Americans believe the U.N. should play a significant role in post-war Iraq. But the public is divided over the issue of who should have the most say in this process: 38% believe the U.N. should take the lead in establishing a stable government in Iraq, compared with 49% who either believe the U.S. and its allies should have the most say (18%), or reject the U.N. having any role at all in the process (31%).

Not unexpectedly, there is a huge partisan gap in opinion on this issue. Far more Democrats than Republicans favor a role for the U.N. (72% vs. 57%). And roughly half of Democrats (47%) think the U.N. should have the most say in establishing an Iraqi government, compared with just a third of Republicans (32%).

The poll also finds deep divisions in opinion about preemptive war, even in light of the positive turn in events in Iraq. Just 15% believe that using military force to remove dictators who threaten but have not attacked the United States is usually the right thing to do. About half (51%) say it is sometimes the right thing, while 30% say it is rarely or never right. Again, political point of view matters. Eight-in-ten Republicans think using military force to remove dictators is sometimes the right thing to do, compared with 55% of Democrats.

The new Pew Research center survey, conducted April 8-9 among 809 Americans, is the latest installment in a war tracking survey that began on March 20. With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the percentage thinking the U.S. made the right decision in going to war rose from 70% on Tuesday to 76% last night. Somewhat fewer (65%) think President Bush was right to use force when he did, rather than waiting to get more major allies to join the coalition.

Success in Iraq has lifted the president’s overall approval rating and his rating for handling the war jumped 11% points overnight (from 65% to 76%), as Americans viewed Baghdad crowds celebrating the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

War Cost Top Concern

The public views the high cost of the war as the biggest post-war concern. Roughly a third (34%) say they worry a great deal that it will be difficult to afford the military operation. Smaller minorities voice a great deal of concern over the possibility of increased hatred of the U.S. in the Middle East, an ongoing guerrilla war in Iraq, or that the war will provoke a rift with U.S. allies.

As might be expected, Americans express much less concern over these issues than they did prior to the war over such dangers as chemical and biological attacks against U.S. troops, significant military casualties or an increased risk of terrorism in the U.S. In a February survey, majorities expressed a great deal of concern over each of these threats (see “U.S. Needs More International Backing,” Feb. 20, 2003).

War opponents have much higher levels of concern over all possible consequences of war than do supporters of the war. Seven-in-ten war opponents worry a great deal that the conflict will inspire more hatred of the United States in the Middle East; just 15% of those who thought the U.S. made the right decision to attack Iraq agree. Similarly, 44% of war opponents and just 11% of war supporters worry a lot about the cost of the military operation.

War Will Aid Terror Fight, Not Mideast Peace

By nearly three-to-one (63%-22%), Americans think the war in Iraq will help, not hurt, the struggle against terrorism. Since the fall, there has been a significant rise in the percentage who think the war in Iraq will aid in the terrorism fight, from 52% in October to 63% in the current survey.

Opinion on this issue also is highly polarized between war supporter and opponents. By a huge margin (77% to 11%), respondents who favor the decision to got to war believe it will help in the terrorism campaign. By a somewhat smaller margin (59% to 23%), war opponents believe it will undermine that campaign.

There is limited optimism that the war in Iraq will make it easier to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A 40% plurality says it will have no effect on the peace process, while 28% think it will help the peace process and 19% believe it will make peace more difficult to achieve.

High Marks for Military’s Tasks

Coalition military forces get good marks from the public for how they have handled a wide range of responsibilities, including balancing the competing objectives of minimizing civilian deaths while trying to win a military victory.

The public gives its highest marks for the military’s central task, defeating the Iraqi forces. Nine-in-ten rate the military’s performance in this area favorably, with 58% saying they have done an excellent job. The public gives lower, but still positive, ratings for the military in avoiding civilian casualties and damage to the Iraqi infrastructure, and for providing aid to the Iraqi people. Only on the question of avoiding “friendly fire” incidents do as many as one third (35%) give the coalition forces a negative rating. However, a majority of war opponents are critical of the military’s handling of friendly fire incidents (56% fair or poor) and half give the military a negative rating on avoiding civilian casualties (49%).

Satisfaction With the Nation Grows

The number of Americans who are satisfied with the way things are going in the nation jumped from 44% in January to 50% now. Dissatisfaction dropped from 50% to 41%. Opinions are strongly related to feelings about the war: nearly two-thirds (64%) of war supporters are satisfied, while three-quarters (76%) of opponents are dissatisfied. Optimism about the state of the nation often surges when the public is focused on critical national events or crises, having risen during the first Persian Gulf War and even during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The president’s overall approval rating rose in the wake of the fall of Baghdad. His approval mark is 74% in polling conducted on April 9. From April 2-April 7, Bush’s job rating stood at 69%.

Children and the War

The majority (55%) of parents with children ages 5-12 report that their kids have been following news about the war in Iraq. However, this is significantly lower than in January 1991, when 69% of parents reported that their children were following war news. Overall, fewer parents report that children are expressing fears about the war than was the case in 1991 (34% today, 43% twelve years ago). But parents are restricting how much coverage of the war their child watches. Half (51%) have been limiting TV news time, up from 30% in 1991.

Mothers and fathers report the same level of child interest and concern about the war. However, it is mothers who are more concerned about what their kids are seeing on TV.

A majority of mothers (58%) say they are restricting how much their children watch the war, compared with 44% of fathers. In fact, a number of parents in focus group interviews mentioned that they were making an effort to get their own news about the war when the children were not around, such as on the radio when driving to work or over the Internet, rather than watching TV news when the kids were home.

As Victoria, a 38-year-old mother of children ages 8 and 11 said, “I’m out all day in my job, on the road, and I listen to the radio. I can get the information I need when I’m by myself. That way when I go home, I don’t need to put it on. I am trying to give [my children] a normal life.” And while kids are clearly interested in the war, parents say that it is not to the point that they are giving up their regular shows and interests to watch more TV news.

Children of both supporters and opponents of the war are following the news at about the same levels, and parents on both sides of the issue are equally likely to place limits on how much they watch. But the children of people who think military action in Iraq was the wrong decision are significantly more likely to say their kids have expressed fears about the war than are those who think war was the right decision. Fully half (51%) of war opponents say their children have expressed concerns, compared with just 30% of war supporters.

Interviews with parents of children age 13-17 suggest that teenagers are somewhat more interested in news about the war than are children age 5-12, and are about as likely to express fears about the war. Relatively few parents of teenagers report taking steps to limit how much TV coverage their children watch.

Parents of both kids and teens have been talking about the war with their children at least from time to time, and more often than not these conversations are being initiated by the child, not the parent. Why the U.S. went to war with Iraq is one of the more widespread topics of conversation, but many report talking with their children about casualties, the impact of the war on the Iraqi people, and why some people oppose the war. Among the kids’ questions reported by participants in the focus groups:

1. “How long will the war last?”

2. “Are there kids there? What happens to them now?”

3. “If the buildings are destroyed, where will the people go?”

4. “How come Saddam Hussein has all that money while people don’t have clothes?”

5. “How long is Uncle Joe going to be in the war? How long until he comes home [to his 7-year-old son]?”

6. “If Saddam Hussein is bad for killing, why are we killing?”

Most parents say that teachers at their children’s schools have discussed the war in class as well. Kathy, a 34-year-old mother of a 7-year old, said he came home agitated and excited, reporting “Mom, the war is starting tomorrow and I’ll have to stay at school and I’m not coming home and did you pack my stuff?” Another child came home, worried about her parents: “Will you have a cell phone? Will Daddy be able to get us if you’re not here?”