The Cakewalk that Wasn't
By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura
There have been a lot of retrospective pieces about the Iraq war the past few weeks (before they were overtaken by commentaries about Margaret Thatcher), but Ole R. Holsti, the George V. Allen Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Duke University, has been looking at American attitudes on the Iraq war for quite a while. In "American Public Opinion and the Iraq War," Holsti, highlights the deep partisan divisions in responses to survey questions about the reasons we went to war and in evaluations of our military operations there. In polls from 2004-2009 self-identified Republican respondents were generally 50 to 60 percentage points more favorable than Democrats when asked if going to war was the right thing to do and was worth the cost. Holsti noted that such a wide partisan gap was “unprecedented in the history of polling on American foreign policy.”
A few years later, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that Americans of all political stripes were generally pessimistic about the benefits of the Iraq conflict. But partisan divisions were still apparent, with some key differences in degree - though not as high as 50 to 60 percent differences mentioned above. Democrats were 27 points more likely to say that the war was not worth the costs (75%, vs. 48% of Republicans). Attitudes toward the Afghan war were not as divided (68% of Democrats, 75% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans said the war was not worth the costs—see figure 1). The decline in Republican support for the Iraq war was also evident in polls conducted by Pew Research from 2003-2013. In 2003, 90 percent of Republicans in the Pew survey said the war was the right decision; by 2013, markedly smaller majority (58%) of Republicans said the war was the right decision.
In addition, more Democrats than Republicans agreed that the Iraq war should make nations more cautious about using military force in dealing with rogue states (75%, vs. 63% of Republicans) and that the war has worsened relations with the Muslim world (74%, vs. 66% of Republicans—see figure 2). Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to say that the threat of terrorism was NOT reduced by the war (74%, vs. 60% of Republicans). On this, Independents matched the opinions of Democrats quite closely.
These divisions are not new, dating back to surveys conducted in 2006, before the midterm election. The 2006 Chicago Council Survey showed that just as they are now, Independents and Democrats were both quite negative about the effects of the Iraq war, with little shift over six years (see figure 3).
Among Republicans, however, opinion toward the effects of the Iraq war has shifted significantly since 2006. Then, a majority (54%) of Republicans saw the war as having reduced the threat of terrorism; in 2012, only 38% held that view. Similarly, Republicans were divided about whether the war would lead to the spread of democracy in the region in 2006 (48% agreeing, 49% disagreeing); by 2012, two in three disagreed.
This shift among the Republican electorate has not gone unnoticed. Recently, a number of conservative writers have expressed serious concern about the lasting damage the Iraq war has done to the Republican party’s traditional advantage on foreign policy and national security issues, even among their own partisans. This was most clearly demonstrated in polls leading up to the 2012 election showing the Democratic candidate Obama with a consistent edge over Republican candidate Romney on issues of national security and foreign policy, generally the turf that the GOP could count on.
Peggy Noonan recently expanded on this in The Wall Street Journal, stating that the war "half killed" the GOP. Similarly, Dan McCarthy recently wrote in The American Conservative that “the root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war—Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP.” In addition to severely damaging their traditional strength on foreign policy issues, McCarthy worries that the war may have had spillover effects to the Republican brand as a whole. And in the same source, Dan Larison argues that the Iraq war has left the GOP 'no margin for error' on foreign policy, making the party’s traditional reliance on hawkish rhetoric hard to sell to a skeptical and war-weary American public.
Not exactly the cakewalk envisioned by the architects of the war.