Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Tale of Two Wars: Public Opinion on the U.S. Military Interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Tale of Two Wars: Public Opinion on the U.S. Military Interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, President George W. Bush launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. American troops were still fighting in both countries when Bush's presidency ended in 2009, leaving it to his successor, Barack Obama, to figure a way out. Obama's prospects for moving either conflict toward a successful conclusion depend not only on political and military events on the ground in the two countries (as well as in Pakistan), but also on the American public's support for, or at least acquiescence to, his military and diplomatic decisions.

The public's response to Obama's initiatives during his first year in office reflect attitudes toward the two wars that have developed over time since their inceptions. The configurations of opinion on the Iraq and Afghan conflicts have come to differ in notable and consequential ways. In this essay, I examine the evolution of opinions on the two wars, compare public assessments of both ventures gathered in the 2008 and 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Surveys, consider explanations for the observed similarities and differences, and review what the data have to tell us about the influences that shape public opinion on wars. As background for these analyses, I begin with a brief historical review of the two wars and the politics they spawned.

The Wars

The public's divergent reactions to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect, in large part, the particulars of the wars themselves. Although both were initiated as responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, their purposes, rationales, and trajectories were quite different. The United States acted against Afghanistan's Taliban government less than a month after the attacks when it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders who had organized them. The action consisted largely of air attacks, with ground combat confined to the Central Intelligence Agency and Army Special Forces units working with local forces opposed to the Taliban. By the end of November, the Taliban had been defeated and driven from power. However, the new American-sponsored government proved incapable of extending its control over large parts of the country, enabling the Taliban to regroup and begin a guerilla insurgency that grew increasingly effective after 2005.

The Iraq invasion took place more than a year later, in March 2003. Although Saddam Hussein's complicity in 9/11 remained unconfirmed, the Bush administration decided to force "regime change" anyway, mainly on the premise that Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, that eventually would be used to blackmail or attack the United States and its allies or could be passed on to terrorists. The military action in Iraq was much more massive in scale than that in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces on the ground quickly reaching 150,000. The United States and its "coalition of the willing" (with Great Britain supplying the most significant help) defeated Saddam Hussein's military forces handily, taking control of all of Iraq's major cities in less than three weeks. But Hussein's fall triggered widespread looting, metastatic sectarian and criminal violence, and the beginnings of an insurgency that grew increasingly lethal over the next few years. Moreover, the principal casus belli was gradually discredited, as months of diligent searching failed to turn up the alleged weapons of mass destruction. The administration thereupon adopted a new rationale for fighting in Iraq--that it was now the central front in a global war on terrorism and that success would encourage the spread democracy across the Middle East.

After several years of little evident progress, the Bush administration in early 2007 adopted a new strategy that included sending some 28,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. This "surge," combined with the switch of some key Sunni insurgent groups to the American (and Iraqi government) side, was successful enough to allow the United States to begin withdrawing its forces in 2008. …

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