July 21, 2005

More Say Iraq War Hurts Fight Against Terrorism

Support for Keeping Troops in Iraq Stabilizes

Summary of Findings

A growing number of Americans believe that the war in Iraq has undermined the U.S. struggle against terrorism. Nearly half (47%) say the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, the highest percentage expressing that view since the war began in March 2003. Nonetheless, public support for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, which had risen steadily since last October, has leveled off. And despite the public’s doubts about the war and its impact on the war on terror, Americans have not given up hope for a successful outcome on Iraq.

In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings in London, more Americans said that the war in Iraq is raising the risk of terrorism in this country. Currently, 45% believe that the war has raised the chances for terrorist attacks in the U.S., up from 36% last fall.

However, bottom-line support for the war has not eroded, even in the face of intensifying violence in Iraq. Roughly half of the public favors maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq until the country is stabilized (52%), and about the same number support the original decision to go to war (49%). The issue of whether to set a timetable on the U.S. military involvement in Iraq also splits the public almost evenly ­ 49% say the U.S. should set a timetable, while 45% disagree.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted July 13-17 among 1,502 adults, finds a considerable degree of uncertainty in attitudes toward setting a timetable for a troop withdrawal. About half of those who favor setting a timetable nonetheless worry that Iraqi insurgents may simply wait out American forces and gain power. Similarly, roughly half of those who oppose a timetable express concern that such a strategy will force U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for a very long time.

Still, fully six-in-ten say it is at least probable that the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable government in Iraq; just a third say the U.S. is likely to fail. While there is a large partisan divide on this measure, and on virtually every issue related to the war, nearly half of Democrats (45%) say the United States will probably or definitely succeed in establishing a stable democratic government in the country.

Although most opinions on Iraq have been stable in recent months, the public has become increasingly critical of President Bush’s handling of the war. Just 27% say Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion ­ the lowest percentage expressing that view since the start of the war. By more than three-to-one (72%-23%), independents say Bush lacks a clear plan for ending the war.

And increasingly, Americans are voicing doubts not only about Bush’s handling of the war, but also terrorism, which has long been one of the president’s main strengths. Since January, the number approving of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq has fallen by 10 percentage points (from 45% to 35%). Over the same period, there has been an even bigger decline in positive views of Bush’s handling of terrorist threats; only about half (49%) approve of Bush’s performance in this area, down from 62% in January (see “Republicans Uncertain on Rove Resignation,” July 19).

War Views Stable

Perceptions of how the war is going have been fairly stable over the past year. Just over half of the public (52%) says the war is going very or fairly well, while 44% think the war is not going well. Positive views of the war reached 75% in December 2003, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, and reached a low of 46% in May 2004, in the wake of revelations of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison.

Similarly, belief that the U.S. made the right decision in going to war has not changed much over the past year. Currently, a small plurality (49%) says the use of military force was the right decision, while 44% disagree. Since last July, support for the decision to go to war has ranged from 46% to 53%.

Support for the war has long been split along partisan lines. Independents now tilt negative about the decision to go to war by a 53%-43% margin. Further, independents are divided over how well the war is going with 47% saying it is going very or fairly well and half saying not too well or not at all well. By contrast 78% of Republicans say the war is going at least fairly well while just 36% of Democrats say the same.

Only a minority of respondents say they have changed their mind about the decision to go to war in Iraq, and about equal portions on both sides of the war decision say their views have stayed the same on Iraq. Eight-in-ten (83%) of those who think the U.S. made the right decision on Iraq report they have always felt this way, while just 15% say they have changed their mind on this issue. Similarly, 79% of those who think it was the wrong decision say they’ve always felt this way; 21% report having changed their mind.

Most See Successful Outcome

Six-in-ten Americans believe the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable government in Iraq, compared with a third who think the U.S. will probably or definitely fail at this goal. Younger respondents are more optimistic in this regard than are older people; 64% of those below age 50 believe the U.S. is likely to succeed in Iraq, compared with 53% of those ages 50 and older.

The partisan divide on this issue is evident, with independents mostly optimistic in this judgment. A majority of independents (57%) believe the U.S. will probably or definitely succeed at establishing a stable democracy in Iraq while 38% of independents think failure is likely. More than eight-in-ten (83%) Republicans think the U.S. will succeed in Iraq. Democrats are divided on the likelihood of success with 45% optimistic and 46% pessimistic.

Perceptions that most Iraqi people support America’s policies there are closely related to opinions of likely success or failure. Among those who think most Iraqis support America’s current policies in Iraq, fully 84% expect success in establishing democracy there. This compares with 43% expecting success among those who see most Iraqis as opposed to U.S. policies in Iraq.

Is it Time to Withdraw?

A narrow majority (52%) believes the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until the situation there has stabilized, while 43% say the U.S. should bring troops home as soon as possible; opinion on this is largely unchanged over recent months. But, by a 50% to 34% margin, more people are concerned that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw troops from Iraq than worry about leaving Iraq before a stable democracy is in place.

Several different factors contribute to opinion about what to do with the troops, including beliefs about the original decision to use force, how well the military effort is going, views on the likelihood of success, and perceptions of support for U.S. policies in Iraq among the Iraqi people.

Those who see the war in Iraq going at least fairly well are inclined to keep troops in Iraq (70%), while only a third of those who view the war effort more negatively agree on this point. A similar pattern is seen among those who support and oppose the decision to use force in Iraq.

People who are optimistic that the U.S. will be able to establish a democracy in Iraq mostly want the troops to remain until the country is stabilized (69% compared to 28% who want to bring troops home as soon as possible). Those expecting failure take the opposite view, with 70% of this group wanting to bring troops home as soon as possible.

The same pattern occurs among those who perceive majority support or opposition for U.S. policies in Iraq among the Iraqi peop
le. More than three-quarters (77%) of those who think most Iraqis support U.S. policies think the troops should stay until the situation is stabilized. By the same token, 63% of those who think most Iraqis oppose U.S. policies in Iraq want the troops home as soon as possible.

Independents split about evenly on this issue (49% to 47%). Three-quarters of Republicans believe the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until it is stable; but only about four-in-ten Democrats (38%) favor keeping American troops in Iraq, while a majority at 55% favors withdrawing them as soon as possible.

There is a sizable gender gap over whether to bring troops home, with women about evenly divided and men much more inclined to keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. Men who have served in the military are significantly more likely than other men to think U.S. troops should stay in Iraq until it has stabilized; 64% of male veterans say this compared to 55% among men who are not veterans.

Mixed Views on a Timetable

The public is divided over the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; 49% support a timetable and 45% do not. Support for setting a timetable on troop withdrawal is high among those who think the U.S. is unlikely to establish a stable democratic government in Iraq. Two-thirds of those who believe the U.S. will fail at establishing a stable democracy in Iraq favor a timetable, while those who think the U.S. will succeed lean against a timetable (56% opposed and 40% in favor).

Both sides of the timetable issue see potential dangers from their preferred course of action, however. A majority (53%) of those who support a timetable for withdrawal say they are concerned that Iraqi insurgents will wait out American forces and gain power. By the same token, opposition to setting a timetable does not mean that citizens have no concerns about the length of troop deployment. A majority (55%) of those opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal report concern that American troops will have to stay in Iraq for a very long time. And a majority of both those for and against setting a timetable expect U.S. troops to remain in Iraq at least two more years.

Is There an Exit Strategy?

More than six-in-ten (64%) are skeptical that President Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful endpoint, up slightly from 61% in February 2005. Democrats and independents overwhelmingly believe that Bush does not have a clear plan (85% and 72%, respectively). Republicans say Bush does have a clear plan by a 58% to 30% margin.

Even people who are optimistic that the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq are divided over whether or not Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation to a successful endpoint (46% say he does not have a clear plan while 44% think he does). Nearly all (93%) of those who think the U.S. will fail say that Bush does not have a clear plan.

Those who think U.S. troops should stay in Iraq until the situation has stabilized are divided over whether or not Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation to a close. About half of this group (47%) express skepticism that Bush has a clear plan while 44% say he does.

Most of those endorsing a timetable for withdrawal are skeptical that Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation to a successful conclusion; 78% say Bush doesn’t have a clear plan. Those against setting a timetable are divided over whether or not Bush has a clear plan with 45% saying he does and 47% saying he does not.

The president also is faulted for how he has explained his plans for Iraq. About two-thirds of the public (68%) say that President Bush has not clearly explained his plans for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, just 28% say that he has. Even those who support the decision to use force in Iraq are divided over this point, with 48% saying Bush’s explanation has not been clear enough and 49% saying otherwise.

While opinion about the war in Iraq has long been politically polarized, about four-in-ten Republicans (43%) are critical of Bush’s explanation of his plans for concluding the war. They are joined by large majorities of independents (78%) as well as Democrats (86%).

Iraq Hurting War on Terror

The public is growing more skeptical that the war in Iraq is helping in the effort to fight terrorism. A plurality (47%) believes that the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, up from 41% in February of this year. Further, a plurality (45%) now says that the war in Iraq has increased the chances of terrorist attacks at home, up from 36% in October 2004, while fewer say that the war in Iraq has lessened the chances of terrorist attacks in the U.S. (22% now and 32% in October). Another three-in-ten believe that the war in Iraq has no effect on the chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S.

Older Americans are more skeptical than younger people that the war in Iraq is helping the effort to fight terrorism. A 56% majority of those age 50 and over say the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, up from 39% in February. Those younger than age 50 are divided on this issue, with 45% saying the war in Iraq has helped and 41% saying it hurt the war on terrorism; that pattern has remained stable since February.

Those who believe that most Iraqis support America’s current policies in Iraq are also more positive about the war’s impact on fighting terrorism; 64% of this group say the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism. A similar portion (66%) of those who think most Iraqis oppose America’s policies in Iraq think the war has hurt the effort to fight terrorism.

Those who support the decision to use force in Iraq have less clear cut views, however, when it comes to helping reduce the chances of an attack on U.S. soil; a narrow 39% plurality believes the war in Iraq lessened the chances of a U.S. attack, while 34% say it had no impact, and 25% think it increased the chances of a terrorist attack here. This is a dramatic change from last October when 59% of those supporting the decision to use force believed the war in Iraq lessened the chances of a U.S. attack. By contrast, a clear majority of those who oppose the war believe it has increased the chances of terrorism hitting the U.S., up from 60% in October 2004 to 71% now.

Republicans have become more skeptical that the war in Iraq has reduced the chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S. About four-in-ten Republicans (42%) believe the war in Iraq lessened the chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S., down from 58% in October. Democrats have long been dubious that the war in Iraq has decreased the chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S.; 15% expressed that view last October, which has declined to 8% currently. Fewer independents also believe the war has reduced the possibility of terrorism in the U.S.

Rating Anti-Terrorism Efforts

The July 7 terrorist attacks in London have had no effect on public views of the U.S. government’s ability to reduce the threat of terrorism. Seven-in-ten say the government is doing very well (17%) or fairly well (53%) reducing the threat of terrorism, which is consistent with surveys over the past two years. Majorities of Republicans (89%), independents (59%), and Democrats (63%) rate the government’s anti-terrorism efforts positively.

There has been only a modest increase in concern that there will soon be another terrorist attack in the United States. A quarter of Americans say they are very worried, up modestly from 17% last fall (see “Tempered Public Reaction to London Attacks,” July 11).

About three-in-ten (28%) say the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S. is greater now than at the time of the 9/11 attacks. This is up somewhat since last July (24%); however, a plurality (40%) continues to express the view that the capability of terrorists to mount a major attack is about the same as it was on 9/11.

Only about three-in-ten (31%) say the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties for the average person. A majority (52%) believes that the country has not gone far enough to guard against terrorism; that viewpoint is largely unchanged from one year ago. However, most Americans (53%) believe it is not necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties in order to curb terrorism; four-in-ten think that some reduction of civil liberties is necessary to achieve this goal.

Cite this publication: “More Say Iraq War Hurts Fight Against Terrorism.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 21, 2005) http://www.people-press.org/2005/07/21/more-say-iraq-war-hurts-fight-against-terrorism/, accessed on July 22, 2014.