February 28, 2008

Obama Has The Lead, But Potential Problems Too

Section 5: Iraq, Afghanistan and Terrorism

Public perceptions of the situation in Iraq have become significantly more positive over the past several months, even as opinions about the initial decision to use military force remain mostly negative and unchanged.

The number of Americans who say the military effort is going very or fairly well is much higher now than a year ago (48% vs. 30% in February 2007). There has been a smaller positive change in the number who believe that the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals (now 53%, up from 47% in February 2007).

Opinion on the critical question of whether the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq is now about evenly divided, the first time this has happened since late 2006. About half of those surveyed (49%) say they favor bringing troops home as soon as possible, but most of these (33%) favor gradual withdrawal over the next year or two, rather than immediate withdrawal. Similarly, just under half (47%) say that the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, with most of these (30%) saying that no timetable should be set.

Perceptions of Progress

Public perceptions about U.S. progress in Iraq continue to improve. In fact, in a number of areas those with positive evaluations outnumber those with negative views.

For the first time since Pew began tracking the question in December 2005, more respondents say that the United States is making progress in reducing civilian casualties (46%) than say it is losing ground (40%). Similarly, 49% now say the United States is making progress in defeating the insurgents, while just 35% say it is losing ground. A majority (57%) now says the U.S. is making progress in training Iraqi military forces (29% say the U.S. is losing ground).

Even on the key political objective of establishing democracy in Iraq, a plurality (49%) says the U.S. is making progress (vs. 40% who say the U.S. is losing ground). This is the first time since the fall of 2006 that a plurality sees progress on this measure. On another key objective, however, the plurality view remains negative. While more now say the U.S. is making progress in preventing a civil war between various religious and ethnic groups (35% now vs. 18% a year ago), just under half says the United States is losing ground on this objective (49% vs. 68% a year ago).

Despite the positive views about progress in many areas, the public remains divided on the question of whether the U.S. presence is helpful or harmful to the Iraqi government. Currently, 44% say that the U.S. military presence does more to weaken the Iraqi government by making them too dependent on us; 43% say that the U.S. presence strengthens the Iraqi government by giving it needed support.

Views of the war continue to differ greatly by partisan affiliation. Republicans have consistently been more likely than independents and Democrats to say the use of military force was the right decision, that the war is going well, and that troops should remain in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. This is still true, but all partisan groups have become more positive about the war.

For example, far more Republicans now than in February 2007 see progress in defeating the insurgency (49% now vs. 30% then). This also is the case for Democrats and independents.

A similar pattern is seen on reducing civilian casualties, preventing civil war, and others.

In addition, somewhat more Democrats now than a year ago believe that U.S. troops should remain in Iraq. Currently, 81% of Republicans favor keeping troops in Iraq, the highest percentage recorded since the beginning of 2004. Nearly half of independents (49%) agree, the highest percentage in more than a year. And while only 27% of Democrats hold this view, this is also higher than it has been since January 2007.

Opinions about Afghanistan

Compared with Iraq, many more Americans say that the U.S. made the right decision in using military force in Afghanistan (65%, vs. 38% for Iraq). And while opinion on keeping troops in Iraq is divided, a solid majority (61%) favors keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized. The percentage saying the troops should remain in Afghanistan has increased since last May (50% then, 61% today).

However, perceptions of the military situation in Afghanistan are no more favorable than views of Iraq. In each case, 48% say things in the country are going very or fairly well.

As in Iraq, more Republicans than Democrats say the military effort in Afghanistan is going well (71% vs. 38% for Democrats and 46% of independents). More Republicans also say that the U.S. made the right decision in using military force there (85%), although majorities of Democrats (53%) and independents (67%) agree. This difference between Republicans and Democrats (32 points) is smaller than for Iraq, where the partisan gap is 59 points.

Overall support for keeping troops in Afghanistan is higher now than it was about a year ago (61% now, 50% in May 2007). Support for keeping troops in Afghanistan has increased more among Democrats and independents than among Republicans during this time period.

Bush Gets Credit on Terrorism

The president’s overall job approval rating remains low, at 33%, but the public gives his administration considerable credit for preventing terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.

More than six-in-ten Americans (62%) say the Bush administration’s policies have had a great deal (28%) or a fair amount (34%) to do with the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001. Only about a third (35%) says Bush policies have had not too much or nothing at all to do with the absence of attacks.

Opinions about the administration’s role in preventing terrorism, like other views about Bush and his policies, are deeply divided politically. Nearly half of Republicans (49%) say the administration’s policies and actions have had a great deal to do with the fact that there have been no attacks in more than six years; just 14% of Democrats agree.

Nonetheless, nearly half of Democrats (47%) say those policies have had at least a fair amount to do with the absence of attacks since 2001. A solid majority of conservative and moderate Democrats (56%) credits the administration’s policies with preventing attacks, compared with just 37% of liberal Democrats.

Most See Terrorists’ Capabilities as Undiminished

A solid majority of Americans (66%) say the government has done very well or fairly well in reducing the threat of terrorism. In January 2007, somewhat fewer people (54%) gave the government good ratings in reducing the terrorist threat. The current measure is in line with positive ratings from 2004 to 2006.

Yet most people say that the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack remains greater or the same as it was at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Overall, 16% believe terrorists’ ability to strike is greater than it was then; 41% say their ability is the same. This compares with 39% who say that the ability of terrorists to attack the United States is less now than on 9/11.

There have been some fluctuations in opinions about terrorists’ capabilities since 2002, but majorities have consistently said that terrorists are at least as capable of launching a major attack on the United States as they were at the time of 9/11. Most Republicans (55%) say terrorists are now less able to strike the United States, but only about a third of independents (35%) and Democrats (34%) agree.

Evaluating Anti-Terrorism Policies

As in previous surveys, more people say their bigger concern about U.S. anti-terrorism policies is that they have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country than say the policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.

About half (47%) say anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough in protecting the country while 36% say their greater concern is that they have infringed upon the civil liberties of average Americans. In August 2006, more than twice as many said their greater concern was that the policies inadequately protected the country than cited restrictions on civil liberties (55% vs. 26%).

The balance of opinion among Democrats about anti-terrorism policies has changed considerably since August 2006. At that time, half of Democrats said their greater concern was that government policies had not gone far enough in protecting the country while just a third said they were more worried that the policies went too far in restricting civil liberties. Currently, by a 47%-39% margin, more Democrats say their greater concern is that anti-terrorism policies have restricted civil liberties. Most Republicans and independents continue to express more concern that anti-terror policies have done too little to protect the United States.

Public attitudes regarding specific Bush administration anti-terrorism policies remain divided and highly politicized. A narrow majority (52%) continues to say it is right for the government to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists, without first getting court permission; 44% say this practice is generally wrong. Opinions on this issue have been stable for the past two years.

Views on whether the use of torture against suspected terrorists can be justified to gain important information also have changed little in recent years. Currently, 17% say the use of torture in such circumstances is often justified, 31% say it can be sometimes justified, while half say it either can be rarely (20%) or never justified (30%).

There is somewhat greater agreement that the government’s policies toward the detainees the United States is holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are fair rather than unfair. More than half of the public (52%) views these policies as fair

Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats believe it is right for the government to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists without court permission (74% vs. 39%). The partisan differences in views of the treatment of Guantanamo detainees are nearly identical; 73% of Republicans say the government’s policies toward detainees are fair, compared with 39% of Democrats.

In addition, 31% of Republicans, but just 12% of Democrats, say that the torture of suspected terrorists to gain important information is often justified. By 38% to 14%, more Democrats than Republicans say the use of torture in such circumstances is never justified.

Obama vs. Clinton Supporters on Terrorism

Democratic supporters of Obama and Clinton also differ on several anti-terrorism policies. By greater than two-to-one (65% to 31%), Democratic voters who support Obama believe that government surveillance of suspected terrorists, without court permission, is generally wrong. Clinton supporters are much more closely divided — 51% say such monitoring is wrong, while 47% say it is generally right.

There are significant, though smaller, differences over other issues. A solid majority of Obama supporters (56%) say that government policies toward Guantanamo detainees are unfair, compared with 47% of Clinton supporters. And somewhat more Obama voters than Clinton voters say their greater concern over anti-terrorism policies is that they go too far in restricting civil liberties (47% vs. 37% of Clinton supporters).