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Is Iraq worth it?

April 08, 2006|Frank Newport | FRANK NEWPORT is the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

PRESIDENT BUSH has recently argued that "the fundamental question is, can we win in Iraq?" But for many Americans, the question has become: "Is it worth it to win?"

So far, the administration's efforts to answer that question have not significantly shifted the responses to the affirmative.

A surprisingly high percentage of Americans agree that Iraq is now and will in the future be better off as a result of the U.S. intervention in that country. But a majority also say the war is not worth it. In various polls, the pattern of responses on these two matters suggests that roughly a third of Americans can be classified as hard-core supporters of the war. They believe that Iraq will be better off as a result of the war and that it's worth it for the U.S. About a fourth are hard-core opponents, and say just the opposite on both points.

It's the group that remains -- about 30% of Americans -- who is the real target of the current administration blitz to move public opinion on Iraq. These "cost-benefit analyzers" agree that Iraq is going to be better off as a result of the war, but disagree that this makes the war worth it. The challenge for the administration in reaching these swing voters is to provide a rationale to justify the costs.

The administration has offered several such rationales. The U.S. public initially gave Bush its proxy to begin the war in large part based on a cost-benefit rationale involving deposing Saddam Hussein and removing the threat of weapons of mass destruction. By the time the war began in March 2003, upward of seven out of 10 Americans agreed that the benefits of ridding the world of a dictator with massive weapons of mass destruction would be worth the costs.

It didn't take long for that support to dissipate. By June 2004, Americans had seen Hussein captured but no weapons of mass destruction. The potential long-term costs of the war were becoming more and more evident. Support fell below majority levels -- 54% of respondents in one poll said that sending troops to Iraq had been a mistake.

The administration then accelerated its use of a second rationale, one that emphasized the benefits of the Iraq war in combating terrorism. But concerned as they are about terrorism, Americans have on average rejected the argument that there is a link between success in Iraq and a lowered probability of terrorist acts.

A majority of Americans in a recent Gallup poll said the war in Iraq is a totally separate military action and not part of the war on terror. One recent CBS News poll question found that just 30% of Americans said the U.S. had been made safer from terrorism as a result of the Iraq war. A Pew Research Center poll found that only 38% said the war in Iraq has helped the war on terror.

There is a third, more complex argument that was apparently at the heart of much of the initial internal thinking about Iraq -- the idea that a democracy in Iraq would be a stabilizing force for peace in that region of the world.

The president recently broached this geopolitical rationale in a speech in West Virginia. Bush asserted that a free Iraq will serve as "an amazing example for people who are desperate for freedom." He went on to talk about the idea that the U.S. should promote freedom in the broader Middle East, and the idea that by promoting liberty we are not only protecting "ourselves" but also trying to lay the foundation of peace for a generation to come.

But is a geopolitical rationale likely to work now? There simply isn't a lot of survey evidence to answer that question.

Gallup last year did measure Americans' reaction to a list of nine possible foreign policy goals for the U.S. The idea of "building democracy in other countries" had the lowest importance rating of any on the list, far behind such goals as preventing future acts of terrorism and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Building democracy in other countries is a simplification of a broad and complex argument for the ultimate value of a democratic Iraq to the region. But the survey data don't suggest immediate enthusiasm for this type of justification.

Finally, there is a fourth, more pragmatic rationale -- one not put forth by the administration. Survey research shows that a strong majority of Americans believe that securing adequate supplies of energy is a very important U.S. foreign policy goal. These data suggest that the American public might actually believe this is an appropriate motivation for military action.

The president has said, "I fully understand there is deep concern among the American people about whether or not we can win." But key groups of Americans are conflicted on the war and are looking for answers to a different and more difficult question: Even if successful, why have the efforts in Iraq been worth it for the United States? So far, there are few indications that the administration rationales for the war have satisfactorily answered this question from the American public's perspective.

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