Rally 'Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States before and after the Iraq War

By Lindsay, James M.; Smith, Caroline | Brookings Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Rally 'Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States before and after the Iraq War


Lindsay, James M., Smith, Caroline, Brookings Review


The Iraq War validated a basic rule of American politics: the American public closes ranks in times of national crisis. In the prolonged march to war, the public was divided and ambivalent about the wisdom of invading Iraq rather than relying on continued United Nations weapons inspections. Most of those doubts evaporated once the bombs began falling. And the surge of patriotism not only boosted public support for President Bush, but extended beyond the White House to raise optimism about the country's institutions and American society as a whole.

The United States now confronts the question of how to win the peace in Iraq. From the early polls it is clear that Americans are not demanding the swift withdrawal of U.S. forces or expecting the rapid reconstruction of Iraq. President Bush, then, has considerable freedom to chart his own course in rebuilding Iraq. The polls--and historical experience--also show, however, that he may gain little lasting political benefit from the U.S. victory. Americans are already beginning to put aside his accomplishments overseas to evaluate what he has accomplished at home.

Public Opinion before the War

Iraq dominated the headlines throughout the fall of 2002 and into the winter of 2003. Public opinion on the wisdom of war, however, stabilized relatively early and slightly in favor of war. Gallup found that from August 2002 through early March 2003 the share of Americans favoring war hovered in a relatively narrow range between a low of 52 percent and a high of 59 percent. By contrast, the share of the public opposed to war fluctuated between 35 percent and 43 percent.

Not surprisingly, Republicans (75 percent in favor) backed war more strongly than did Democrats (only 40 percent). Younger Americans also tended to be more supportive of the war than older Americans. Six of out ten Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 favored war, as against fewer than five out of ten of those older than 65. The greater willingness of young Americans to endorse the use of military force is nothing new. Although Vietnam is remembered for its college-aged protesters, younger Americans on the whole tended to be more supportive of U.S. military action in southeast Asia than older Americans were.

The only three major demographic groups to show majority opposition to the war before its start were blacks (56 percent opposed in a February Gallup poll), people with postgraduate education (56 percent), and Democrats (55 percent). Although women are usually less supportive of the use of force than men, a slim majority of American women (51 percent) favored invading Iraq. Meanwhile, Hispanic Americans were slightly more supportive of the war (60 percent) than Americans as a whole--suggesting that arguments that the rapid growth of the nation's Latino community is destined to shift U.S. foreign policy away from regions like the Middle East and toward Latin America are misplaced.

Although the American public leaned slightly in favor of war in 2002 and early 2003, the polls also showed that their support was ambivalent and conditional. Only about a third of the public accepted President Bush's contention that Iraq posed an imminent threat to U.S. security. When people were given the choice between going to war or giving UN weapons inspectors more time, a majority preferred more inspections. Support for the war also fell when people were given scenarios in which the UN refused to authorize the fighting or U.S. troops suffered heavy casualties.

Even many Americans who favored war were not demanding it. Gallup asked those who supported attacking Iraq whether they would be upset if President Bush decided not to go to war. Roughly half said no. The Los Angeles Times asked those who approved of the job Bush was doing as president why they supported him. Fewer than one in ten said they based that approval on his policy toward Iraq.

In sum, public opinion on the eve of war with Iraq was permissive--it was willing to follow the White House to war but not demanding war. …

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