December 12, 2006

Baker-Hamilton Report Evokes Modest Public Interest

Growing Number Sees Iraq Becoming 'Another Vietnam'

Summary of Findings

Despite deep public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, the highly anticipated report by a bipartisan panel proposing new policy options for Iraq did not register strongly with most Americans. Only about half say they heard even a little about the report released last week by the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, while about as many (47%) say they heard nothing at all about the group’s recommendations.

The panel’s major proposals have won fairly broad acceptance among those familiar with them. Six-in-ten of those who have heard at least a little about the Baker-Hamilton report say they mostly agree with its major recommendations. There also is majority support for several of the specific steps proposed by the group, including launching talks with Iran and Syria to encourage their cooperation in Iraq (69%) and shifting the primary mission of U.S. troops from fighting insurgents to supporting the Iraqi army (62%).

However, the public is highly dubious that the study group’s recommendations will be accepted by the Bush administration. Fully 57% of those who have heard something about the Iraq Study Group’s report say the administration will not follow the panel’s major recommendations, compared with only about half that number (28%) who believe the administration will accept its proposals.

At the same time, the public has grown more negative about the situation in Iraq and President Bush’s handling of the war. Half of Americans now believe that the war in Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam, while just a third think that the U.S. will accomplish its goals there. As recently as April, opinion on this issue was evenly divided (43% felt the U.S. would accomplish its goals vs. 41% who said it will be another Vietnam). And just 23% approve of President Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq ­ down nine points since August. Bush’s overall job approval mark of 32% is unchanged from November, though it remains the lowest of his presidency.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 6-10 among 1,502 adults, finds that 52% currently describe the violence in Iraq as “mostly a civil war,” rather than an insurgency against the U.S. and its allies. While this is largely unchanged from September, it represents a major shift from a year ago. In December 2005, just 30% viewed the violence in Iraq as mostly a civil war while 58% said it was an insurgency aimed at the U.S. and its allies.

The survey finds that public support for setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq has increased modestly over the past few months. Currently, 58% say the U.S. should set a timetable for withdrawing the troops, while 34% are opposed to that step. In two October surveys, smaller majorities favored setting a timetable for bringing the troops home (53% in early October, 54% in late October).

There also has been slight movement on the question of whether U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there stabilizes, or be brought home as soon as possible. Half of Americans say the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible, while 44% think they should stay in Iraq until it is stable. In recent months, opinion on this issue has been more evenly divided; the 50% in favor of a rapid troop withdrawal equals the highest percentage expressing this view (in March 2006).

As public perceptions of the situation in Iraq have deteriorated, so too have views of the situation in Afghanistan. Americans are divided about whether the war against terrorist organizations in Afghanistan has been mostly a success (45%) or mostly a failure (42%). Last January, more people viewed the military effort in Afghanistan as mostly a success rather than a failure (by 52%-30%). Democrats, in particular, are now decidedly less positive about the military effort in Afghanistan; just 28% feel the war has been mostly a success, down from 41% in January.

Support for the decision to use force in Afghanistan also has slipped. About six-in-ten (61%) endorse that decision, down from 69% in January. Nonetheless, many more Americans feel that the use of force in Afghanistan was the right decision than say the same about using military force in Iraq (61% vs. 42%).

Opinions of Baker-Hamilton

There is no partisan divide in awareness of the Baker-Hamilton report, but Democrats and Republicans have different views and expectations about its recommendations. Just over half of Democrats, Republicans and independents say they have heard at least a little about the Iraq Study Group’s report.

By a margin of 67%-12%, Democrats who are aware of the report say they mostly agree with its recommendations, and the balance of opinion among independents is virtually identical (67% mostly agree, 16% mostly disagree). While a larger share of Republicans (29%) disagree with the report’s recommendations, a plurality of Republicans (49%) mostly agree with the proposals. This is the case even when the analysis is limited to self-described conservatives within the party, who tend to agree with the report’s suggestions by a 48% to 30% margin.

Republicans and Democrats also differ over the prospects that the Bush administration will follow the Iraq Study Group’s major recommendations. By roughly four-to-one (70%-17%), Democrats say the administration will not follow the Baker-Hamilton proposals; independents by a smaller but substantial margin agree (60%-29%). A slight plurality of Republicans (44%) believe the administration will follow the major recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton panel, though nearly as many (40%) disagree.

There is fairly strong bipartisan support for several of the major proposals of the Baker-Hamilton commission. While 72% of Democrats endorse the idea of starting talks with Iran and Syria to encourage their cooperation in the Iraq effort, 62% of Republicans agree. When it comes to the idea of shifting the primary mission of U.S. troops from fighting insurgents to supporting the Iraqi Army, Republicans are slightly more supportive (70% favor) than are Democrats (60%) or independents (61%).

Divided Over Iraq-Vietnam Comparisons

Half of the American public now thinks the Iraq war will turn out to be another Vietnam, but opinions differ dramatically across party lines. Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and just over half of independents (53%) see Iraq as another Vietnam, compared with just 23% of Republicans. Still, even among Republicans, optimism about the war is declining: in April 73% believed the U.S. would accomplish its goals in Iraq; currently, 58% think the U.S. will achieve its objectives.

Views about how to characterize the current violence in Iraq also vary according to party identification, although less sharply. Overall, a narrow majority (52%) considers the current violence in Iraq a civil war, including majorities of independents (58%) and Democrats (55%). While Republicans are less likely to believe this, a 47% plurality nonetheless views the current violence in Iraq as mostly a civil war, while 38% describe the violence there primarily as an insurgency aimed against the U.S. and its allies.

In general terms, most Americans continue to believe the war in Iraq is going poorly. As was the case in November, 64% say U.S. military efforts are going not too well or not well
at all. Perceptions of progress in Iraq also continue to be divided sharply by party: Just 17% of Democrats and 30% of independents think the war is going well, but a solid majority of Republicans (57%) say military efforts in Iraq are moving in the right direction.

More Favor a Timetable

The number of Americans who believe the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is at an all-time high (58%). Only about third (34%) reject setting a timetable for bringing the troops home. As recently as September, the public was roughly split between those who supported (47%) and those who opposed (45%) a timetable.

This increase in support for a timetable over the last three months has been particularly strong among independents: in September half (50%) of independents favored a timetable, compared to 64% now. But Republicans are also significantly more likely to back a timetable now (40%) than they were three months ago (31%). And two-thirds of Democrats (67%) currently favor a timetable, up six percentage points from September.

Half Say Bring Troops Home

Half of the public (50%) now says the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible, while 44% believe the U.S. should keep troops there until the situation has stabilized. Opinion on bringing the troops home is now at the same level as in March; that survey followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shia mosque in Samarrah, which incited a wave of sectarian conflict.

Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) say the U.S. should bring its troops home, compared with just 29% who favor keeping troops in Iraq as long as necessary to bring stability. Independents are almost evenly split on this issue; 49% say bring the troops home and 47% believe U.S. forces should stay. Most Republicans (68%) continue to favor keeping troops in Iraq, although the number of Republicans favoring withdrawal has risen eight points over the last month, from 19% to 27%.

Most of those who favor withdrawal believe it should be done on a gradual basis rather than immediately. About a third of the public (32%) says the troops should be withdrawn over the next year or two, compared with 18% who believe they should be removed from Iraq immediately. Even Democrats, who overwhelmingly favor bringing troops home as soon as possible, tend to prefer gradual (41%) over immediate (25%) withdrawal.

People who think the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until the situation is stable are divided between those who say we have sufficient forces to do the job (20%) and those who feel more troops are needed (17%). About a quarter of Republicans (26%) believe more U.S. troops should be sent to Iraq.

Most Still See Iraqis as Better Off

Despite increasing sectarian violence in Iraq and growing frustration with the war in the U.S., most Americans (57%) believe the Iraqi people are better off now than they were when Saddam Hussein was in power. This includes solid majorities of Republicans (80%) and independents (58%). Democrats are almost evenly divided on this question (44% worse off, 42% better off). Opinions about whether Iraqis are better or worse off are correlated with views of the decision to go to war. A large majority (86%) of those who feel the decision to use force was the right decision think the Iraqis are better off, while only one-third of those who say the war was a mistake think Iraqis are in a better situation now.

When respondents are asked whether the Iraqi people will be better or worse off in “the long run” than they were under Saddam Hussein’s rule, optimism increases significantly; 71% say Iraqis will be better off in the long run, while just 18% say they will be worse off. Even among those who say the decision to use military force in Iraq was a mistake, 55% think Iraqis will eventually be better off. And the partisan divide that shapes most questions regarding Iraq is less stark here: large majorities of Republicans (86%), independents (67%), and Democrats (66%) feel things will ultimately be better for the Iraq people than they were under Saddam.

Bush Approval: Down on Iraq, Up on Economy

While George W. Bush’s job approval rating overall has held relatively steady in recent months, the public has become significantly more critical of his handling of Iraq. Currently, just 23% approve of how Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, down from 32% in August, and 36% a year ago in December 2005. Meanwhile, disapproval has spiked up to 71% from 61% in August and 58% last December.

The president’s own partisans have shifted the most in their evaluations of his handling of the Iraq situation. In August, Republicans approved of Bush’s Iraq performance by a margin of 69% to 24%. Today, just 53% of Republicans approve, while disapproval has risen 15 percentage points, to 39%.

At the same time, public approval of the president’s handling of the economy has risen modestly, from 33% in August to 39% today. This reflects a slight shift in the views of Republicans and Democrats, but a sizable change of opinion among independents.

In August, just 24% of independents approved of Bush’s handling of the economy, compared with 39% today.

Monthly News Interest

About four-in-ten Americans (42%) say they followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely, which is little changed from November (44%). Somewhat fewer say they very closely tracked news about the incoming Democratic leaders in Congress and the rebuilding efforts in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina (29% each).

Just 16% say they paid very close attention to news of the death of a former Russian spy by radiation poisoning, while 13% tracked news about ethnic violence in the Darfur region in Sudan very closely.

As expected, far more Democrats (41%) than Republicans (24%) followed news about incoming Democratic congressional leaders. However, there also are partisan differences in attentiveness to news about rebuilding from Katrina and in ethnic violence in Darfur. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say they paid very close attention to news about the violence in Sudan (18% vs. 9%).