American public opinion appears to be slowly shifting against the Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq. A new survey finds that less than half of Americans support the U.S. administration's policies in Iraq.
Washington, 4 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A new poll shows that less than half of Americans support the Iraq policies of U.S. President George W. Bush.
The poll, conducted last week by "The Washington Post" and the broadcaster ABC, found that 47 percent of those questioned approve of Bush's handling of the 7-month-old war in Iraq, while 51 percent disapprove.
The survey's results reflect opinions formed since the Iraqi resistance mounted devastating bombings in Baghdad against the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the persistent attacks that have killed at least 138 U.S. soldiers since Bush declared the end of "major combat" in Iraq on 1 May.
The poll was conducted before the downing of a U.S. helicopter on 2 November that killed 16 U.S. soldiers. It was the single deadliest attack on U.S. forces since the war in Iraq began last March.
The latest polling figures appear to reflect a subtle lessening of confidence in Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. A Gallup poll conducted one month ago found half of Americans disapproving of Bush's handling of Iraq. Forty-seven percent approved of his performance.
RFE/RL spoke with analysts about the U.S. handling of the Iraq war and how the performance of the Bush administration may be affecting the attitudes of Americans toward the ongoing conflict.
Simon Serfaty is a specialist in international diplomacy and military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private, nonpartisan policy research center in Washington. Serfaty believes the instability and bloodshed in Iraq can be directly attributed to the U.S. Defense Department's botching of the occupation.
Serfaty tells RFE/RL that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was based on a complete misunderstanding of the country. He says the U.S. failed to fully grasp the resentment Iraqis felt toward the West during the Hussein years, even going back to when Britain drew the country's borders eight decades ago.
"I think that what you see most of all is a gross ignorance -- ignorance, abysmal ignorance -- of the conditions that prevailed in Iraq during the Saddam years [and] historically since the early 1920s, and the impact of those conditions upon the occupation," Serfaty said.
Serfaty believes the U.S. Defense Department did a good job during the so-called "major combat" phase of the Iraq war, which ended on 1 May, but that it has mishandled the job of stabilizing Iraq.
According to Serfaty, Bush eventually recognized the problem, but only to a limited extent, and has responded by naming his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to coordinate Iraq policy. But he says that remedy has not gone far enough. No one, he says, has been fired over the problems now occurring in Iraq, and he believes no one has yet emerged who is clearly in charge of it.
Beyond the armed resistance, Serfaty says many ordinary Iraqis seem ambivalent about -- if not outright hostile to -- the American presence. He says this is contrary to the attitude predicted by such Bush administration officials as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
"The notion that the Iraqis would welcome us all in the streets and be ready to do our bidding went in the face of everything that is known in Iraq. And the most extraordinary failure of U.S. intelligence was to not understand the reality, the depth, the significance, the enormity of the devastation within Iraq since 1979," Serfaty said.
As a result, Serfaty says, Americans -- mindful of the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 -- support the war against terrorism but evidently do not share Bush's view that the war in Iraq is a major front in that war.
"The president overstated the completion of the war on 1 May, declaring the [major] combat operations over and the mission accomplished, and accordingly the public no longer understands why those casualties [are still being incurred], and what for -- especially as the linkage with September 11 is no longer self-evident," Serfaty said.
And so, he says, no one should be surprised about polls showing public concern over the continuing bloodshed in Iraq.
Alan Lichtman is a professor of American history at American University in Washington. He believes that if Bush and his aides do not improve the situation in Iraq, these poll numbers could get worse, just as Bush begins to seriously campaign for re-election in November 2004 for a second four-year term.
Lichtman tells RFE/RL that if the president's ratings on Iraq do not improve significantly in time for next year's vote, he may face the same divided electorate that he faced when he ran against Al Gore in 2000.
"[Bush's] numbers on the economy and domestic issues have always been low. It is his strength in defense and national security policy that has been propping up his high ratings. But now that things have turned negative in Iraq and people are questioning his policy, we have returned right back to the year 2000 of an evenly divided, polarized country," Lichtman said.
Lichtman says the problems regarding Iraq that Bush faces with American voters can be summarized this way: he did not prepare Americans for a long and bitter war, and he did not prepare them for its enormous expense -- at least $87 billion for the current fiscal year, which began on 1 October.
There is one potential bright spot for Bush, according to Lichtman. He notes that just last week, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that the American economy surged forward at an annual rate of more than 7 percent during the third quarter of this year -- July through September.
While most economists say it is unrealistic to expect that rate of growth to be sustained, they see it as an indicator of more modest -- yet still robust -- growth of around 3 percent over the next 12 months.
It is axiomatic in U.S. politics that nothing is more important in presidential politics than the nation's economy. But if the security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, next year's presidential elections may put that theory to the test.