March 22, 2013 | By Craig Kafura

Ten Years On: American Public Opinion on the War in Iraq

Wednesday, Dan Drezner referenced the 2012 Chicago Council Survey in his post on the effects of the Iraq war on American foreign policy:

Here's the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights. ... Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States.

His full post is definitely worth reading. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that the legacy of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) appears to be strongly shaping the American public’s views of international engagement. While we didn't delve too deeply into that relationship in Foreign Policy in the New Millennium, the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war provides a good opportunity to do so. This post is the first in a series on the war in Iraq and the seeming impacts it has had on American public opinion.

First, most Americans do not think much has been gained from the war. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey, as well as long- term trends from ABC News/Washington Post, show a majority of Americans say that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (see figure 1). There was only a brief period from April 2003 up to the summer of 2004 when more favored than opposed the war. From then until December 2004 the public was divided; after December,  the war never mustered majority support.

Most significant, the prevailing view is that these military actions have not made the United States safer from terrorism. Seven in ten say the United States is no safer from terrorism as a result of the Iraq war (69%, up from 61% in 2006). Moreover, most Americans believe that the Iraq war has worsened America’s relations with the Muslim world (70%, up 4 percentage points from 2006) and will not lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East (68%, up 4 points from 2006). A solid majority also believes that the experience of the Iraq war should make nations more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue states (71%, up 5 points from 2006) (see figure 2).

Even those who see the Iraq war as having been worth the cost are not necessarily positive about its effects or enthusiastic for a repeat. Majorities of those who say the Iraq war was worth fighting believe that the experience of Iraq should make nations more cautious about the use of force in dealing with rogue states, see it as having worsened America's relations with the Muslim world, and disagree that it will lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East (see figure 3). They are statistically divided, however, on the war's impact on the threat of terrorism.

In our next post, we'll take a look at the broader effects of the war in Iraq on American public opinion in the coming week, including the relationship between attitudes toward the Iraq war on the willingness of the US public to use military force, partisan divides, and what an active role in the world means for Americans after Iraq.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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