September 24, 2008

Declining Public Support for Global Engagement

Section 2: Views of Iraq and Afghanistan

Over the past three months, public perceptions of the war in Iraq have improved dramatically. In the current survey, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the war is going very (19%) or fairly (39%) well, while fewer than four-in-ten (37%) say things in Iraq are not going well. In June, just 44% said they thought the war was going well (10% very well, 34% fairly well); a 52% majority said it was not going well.

Despite the public’s increasingly positive views of the situation, half of Americans say the United States should bring its troops home as soon as possible, while 45% say it should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. Opinion on this question is not significantly different from June, when the public favored withdrawing troops by a 52%-43% margin.

Most demographic and political groups now view the military situation in Iraq more positively than in June. Notably, more than half of independents (57%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (51%) now say the military effort there is going well; in June, just 40% of independents and 33% of conservative and moderate Democrats said things were going well.

Opinion about how well the war in Iraq is going is now more positive than it has been since the summer of 2004. And this is the first time since June 2006 that a majority has said the war is going well. Positive views of the war hit a low point in February 2007, when just 30% of the public said the U.S. military effort in Iraq was going very or fairly well.

Consistent with improving views of the war effort, an increasing percentage says that the U.S. will succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say that the U.S. will definitely (18%) or probably (40%) succeed in reaching its goals in Iraq. A year ago, just 42% said the U.S. will succeed in achieving its goals while 47% said it would probably or definitely fail.

At the same time, there has been only modest improvement in how the public views the original decision to go to war. In the current survey, 43% say using military force against Iraq was the right decision, while half (50%) call it the wrong decision. The proportion calling the war was the right decision has increased slightly from 39% in June. Not since February 2006, when 51% said the war was the right decision, has a majority expressed a positive view of the original decision to go to war.

And the public remains divided over whether to withdraw U.S. forces in Iraq as soon as possible or to keep them there until the situation has stabilized. The last time that a majority of Americans supported keeping U.S. forces in Iraq was in September 2005 when 51% favored that policy.

Divided Over Iraq

There continue to be substantial gender, race and age differences over whether to maintain U.S. forces in Iraq. The political divisions over Iraq remain particularly stark: just 17% of conservative Republicans say U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 81% favor keeping them there until the situation has stabilized. Liberal Democrats, by nearly as wide a margin (77% to 18%) favor withdrawing the troops as soon as possible.

Most independents (53%) favor bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible. Similarly, 52% of swing voters want U.S. forces withdrawn as soon as possible, while 43% favor keeping them in Iraq until the situation has stabilized.

Swing Voters’ Views of Candidates

While most swing voters favor an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, they generally say McCain can do the best job in making wise decisions about Iraq. Swing voters also favor McCain on several other foreign policy issues as well.

By 46% to 26%, more swing voters say McCain rather than Obama can do the best job of making wise decisions on Iraq. McCain’s advantage among swing voters is even larger on views of which candidate can best defend the country against terrorism (56% to 14%) and is best able to make wise decisions about foreign policy (52% to 25%).

More Support Afghanistan Mission

The public expresses somewhat more support for keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan than it does for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. In the current survey, a 61% majority favors keeping military troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized, compared with 33% who favor removing troops as soon as possible. Most demographic groups favor leaving troops in the country, though the balance of support for maintaining a military presence is greater among some subgroups than others.

More than three-quarters (77%) of Republicans favor keeping troops in Afghanistan compared with a narrow 53% majority of Democrats. Six-in-ten independents support U.S. and NATO troops remaining in Afghanistan, as do 57% of swing voters.

A narrow majority of Americans under age 30 (53%) favor removing U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. By contrast, solid majorities in older age groups – including 70% of those age 50 to 64 – favor keeping troops in Afghanistan.