September 18, 2007

Petraeus’ Proposals Favored, But No Lift in War Support

Increases in Optimism Mostly Limited to Republicans

Summary of Findings

Last week’s congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, followed by President Bush’s address to the nation, has not changed bottom-line public attitudes toward the war in Iraq. However, there has been a modest increase in positive views about the U.S. military effort, accompanied by largely positive public reactions to General Petraeus’ recommendations.

Most Americans (57%) who heard at least something about Petraeus’ report say they approve of his recommendations for troop withdrawals, which President Bush has endorsed. However, just 16% say Petraeus’ statements have made them more optimistic about the war, while 67% say their views were unchanged by the general’s report.

The mostly stable opinions about the war and U.S. policies toward Iraq are consistent with this assessment. In the current survey, a 47% plurality says the United States will probably or definitely fail to achieve its goals in Iraq, which is largely unchanged from July (49%). Most important, opinions about whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq have not changed at all over the past two months: 54% believe U.S. forces should be brought home as soon as possible while 39% say U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until the situation is stable.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 12-16 among 1,501 adults, finds there has been modest improvement in public perceptions of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.

Currently, 41% say the U.S. military effort is going very or fairly well, up from 36% in July. In addition, 31% say that President Bush’s troop increase is making things better in Iraq, which is somewhat higher than in April (24%); however, as was the case in April, nearly half (46%) say the troop increase is having no effect. As is the case with several measures of opinion about Iraq, most of the increases in positive views regarding the surge have come among Republicans.

The public’s outlook on several aspects of America’s involvement in Iraq has improved over the summer, though the balance of opinion remains negative in most areas. The proportion saying progress is being made toward military goals, in particular, has edged upward since February, after a year of generally growing frustration throughout 2006.

Notably, the number saying the U.S. is making progress in reducing the number of civilian casualties rose from 21% in July to 37% today — the highest percentage measured since the question was first asked in December 2005. Nearly half of Americans (48%) still believe the United States is losing ground in reducing civilian casualties, though that represents a sharp decline since July (65%).

Relative to earlier in the year, more today say America is making progress in defeating the insurgents militarily, and preventing terrorists from establishing bases in Iraq from which they can attack elsewhere. And the proportion saying that the United States is making progress in preventing a civil war stands at 26%, up eight points since February.

But the public’s outlook on the situation in Iraq is hardly rosy. In fact, the balance of opinion is the most negative when it comes to preventing a civil war between religious and ethnic groups in Iraq — a 57% majority believes the United States is losing ground on this front. In addition, roughly half say the U.S. is losing ground in establishing democracy in Iraq (49%). Regarding the goal of getting Iraqi leaders to cooperate, only about a third (35%) see progress being achieved while 49% say the U.S. is losing ground.

The public is most optimistic with regard to training Iraqi military forces, with 50% saying progress is being achieved. This is an improvement from July when just 42% saw progress in this area. But it is well below earlier marks; as recently as June 2006, 61% said the U.S. was making progress in training the Iraqi military.

Growing Partisan Gap in Optimism

In some cases, the rise in optimism since the start of the year is most apparent among Republicans. Two-thirds (67%) of Republicans today believe the U.S. is making progress in defeating the insurgents in Iraq, up from 53% in February. But very few Democrats (16%) or independents (31%) agree with this assessment, and views have remained unchanged throughout the year.

Similarly, Republicans have become substantially more optimistic about progress in preventing a civil war, while Democrats and independents remain generally gloomy. And while there has been an across-the-board rise in optimism about reducing the number of civilian casualties, the gains are far more substantial among Republicans. As a result of these differences, the partisan divide in outlook about the war is far larger now than at the start of the year.

Still Skeptical About the Surge

There is a similar pattern in views of whether the troop increase President Bush approved earlier this year is improving the situation in Iraq. Overall, 31% of Americans say the troop surge is making things better in Iraq up slightly from 24% in April. But the prevailing view, held by 46%, is that the troop increases are having no effect, while 20% say it is making things worse.

The partisan divide in ratings of the surge is, if anything, larger today than in the spring. Currently, 59% of Republicans say the troop increases have improved the situation in Iraq, up from 47% in April. Just 11% of Democrats say the surge has made things better, up only slightly from 7% earlier in the year. Instead, most Democrats (60%) and roughly half of independents (49%) say the surge is having no effect on the situation in Iraq, views that have not shifted much since April.

Dem Leaders Not Going Far Enough

By nearly two-to-one, more say Democratic leaders in Congress are not going far enough, rather than too far, in challenging Bush’s policies in Iraq (42% vs. 22%). A quarter of Americans believe that Democratic leaders are handling this about right.

Opinions about the Democrats’ approach on Iraq have been largely stable since March. However, somewhat fewer Republicans say Democratic leaders are going too far than did so in July (50% today vs. 63% then). The current balance of opinion among Republicans is closer to where it stood in June and March.

Meanwhile, a 61% majority of Democrats think Congress is not doing enough, up from 54% in July. And by a wide margin, independents also would like to see Congress do more to challenge Bush on Iraq. Currently, 48% of independents say Congress is not going far enough in challenging Bush’s Iraq policies, up from 43% in July.

Reactions to Petraeus

Most Americans report having heard at least a little about Gen. Petraeus’ report to Congress last week. Nearly a quarter (23%) say they heard a lot, while 43% had read or heard a little; 32% had heard nothing at all. Attention to the general’s report was bipartisan: substantial majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents say they heard at least a little about Petraeus’ report.

About three-quarters of Republicans (76%) and half of independents who heard about the report believe that Gen. Petraeus was accurately describing the current situation in Iraq. Reaction among Democrats is more skeptical. Just a third of Democrats say he accurately described the situation while 49% say he made things seem better than they really are.

Reaction to Petraeus’ recommendation for troop withdrawals has been generally favorable. Among those who have heard about Petraeus’ report, 57% approve of the plan; 28% disapprove. Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Petraeus’ troop proposal (by 77%-10%), while independents also broadly approve of the general’s recommendations (by 58%-27%). Democrats are divided over Petraeus’ proposals, though 40% approve of the recommendations.

However, most people say that the general’s testimony had no impact on their overall view of the situation in Iraq. Just 16% of those who heard something about his report said they are now more optimistic about the U.S. achieving its goals in Iraq. Two-thirds (67%) say their view has not changed; 12% say they are now less optimistic than before hearing the report. Even among Republicans, only 31% said they were encouraged by his report.

Compared with public attention to Gen. Petraeus’ testimony before Congress, far fewer Americans took note of President Bush’s Sept. 13 address to the nation on Iraq. Among those interviewed Sept. 14-16, 55% say they had read or heard nothing at all about the speech; just 16% heard a lot, while 28% had heard a little. About half of Republicans (54%) say they heard a lot or a little about Bush’s speech, compared with 44% of independents and 39% of Democrats.

Among those who had heard about Bush’s speech, a plurality (49%) believes that the president should remove more troops from Iraq while 38% say the troop withdrawals go far enough. Similarly, 49% say the president’s troop withdrawals do not represent a major step in the U.S getting out of Iraq, compared with 44% who believe this is a major step in that direction.
Reaction to Bush’s proposals also are largely partisan, with nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) saying that the troop withdrawal goes far enough, while an even larger majority of Democrats (78%) expressing the view that the plan does not go far enough. Partisan disagreement on the significance of the plan is similarly divided, though 29% of Democrats describe it as a major step toward disengagement. Majorities of independents are critical of the plan on both measures.

Long-Term Trends Still Negative

Overall, 41% say things are going at least somewhat well with the U.S. military effort in Iraq, up somewhat from 36% in July. Public views of the situation in Iraq reached a low point in February, when just 30% said things were going well. Despite the rise in positive views since then, fewer people see progress being achieved currently than did so a year ago (41% vs. 47%).

Moreover, just 42% of Americans believe that the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq; that is little changed since the spring (45% in April) but 15 points lower than a year ago (57%).

Majority Favors Troop Pullout

Opinion about whether to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq has remained stable for most of this year. Currently, 54% support a troop withdrawal, which is virtually unchanged from measures dating back to February. In mid-January, following Bush’s speech announcing the surge, there was a modest decline in support for a troop withdrawal; 48% supported bringing the troops home as soon as possible, down five points from a survey conducted earlier in the month (53%). But the proportion favoring a troop withdrawal rebounded to 53% in February. It has remained at about that level since then.

Yet opinion regarding what to do about the troops is complex. Of those who support a troop withdrawal, most (34% of the public) say they should be brought home gradually over the next year or two rather than withdrawn immediately (18%). Among Democrats and independents, pluralities favor a gradual, rather than immediate, troop withdrawal.

Of those who support keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stable, most (25%) reject setting a timetable on a troop withdrawal. Among Republicans, who strongly support maintaining troops in Iraq, 48% oppose setting a timetable for withdrawal while 20% favor this approach.

One-Word Descriptions of the Situation in Iraq

When asked for the word that best describes the situation in Iraq these days, the most frequently volunteered expressions are mess, bad, terrible, sad and horrible; each of these words was used by more than 25 individuals out of the 760 who were asked the question.

These most frequently mentioned words largely mirror the words offered by respondents a year-and-a-half ago, when bad, mess, terrible and sad also topped the list. The main difference from March 2006 is the declining use of the word chaos, mentioned by 29 people in March 2006 and 12 this year. But at the same time, use the words horrible by 26 people, disappointing (10), disgusting (9), and unfortunate (9) has grown substantially relative to last March.

The only positive words that are used frequently are improving and necessary, mentioned by eight and seven people, respectively. Coincidentally, precisely the same number of people used the word unnecessary as offered the word necessary. Other positive words, such as progress, better, and good came up only a handful of times.

Not surprisingly, these more upbeat words were offered primarily by those who see the overall military effort in Iraq going well. But even among those who say things are going very or fairly well for the U.S., words like mess, bad, and sad are used most often. Those words also are offered frequently by people who say the military situation is not going well.