Two years after President Bush led the country to war in Iraq, Americans appear to be of two minds about the situation in the Middle East: A majority say they believe the Iraqis are better off today than they were before the conflict began -- but they also say the war was not worth fighting in the first place, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The January elections in Iraq have helped to shift public opinion in a positive direction about the future of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, with a clear majority of Americans (56 percent) saying they are now confident that Iraqi leaders can create a stable government -- a dramatic turnaround since just before the elections.
William Kristol said how Iraq turns out will answer the question of whether the war was justified.
The poll also shows that more Americans believe the war has improved the chances of democracy spreading in the Middle East than believe it has diminished those prospects.
Despite the optimism about the future, the poll suggests there has been little change in the negative public opinion about the decision to go to war. Fifty-three percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting, 57 percent said they disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq, and 70 percent said the number of U.S. casualties, including more than 1,500 deaths, is an unacceptable price.
The mixed assessment of the situation in Iraq comes near the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion. It offers a benchmark for measuring the shifts in public opinion that have occurred since Bush launched the war despite opposition from much of the rest of the world.
Along with judgments about the war in Iraq, the poll found little appetite for military action against other states Bush has targeted for criticism, including Iran and North Korea. But with Iraq moving toward greater self-governance, Bush does not appear to be under great pressure to remove U.S. forces immediately -- despite criticism of how he has handled the situation there.
The poll also comes in the midst of encouraging signs throughout the Middle East, with tensions between Israelis and Palestinians reduced, popular support and international pressure for an end to Syria's occupation of Lebanon, and tentative steps toward democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Bush has reaped some of the credit for the changes underway in the region, having made the promotion of democracy there and elsewhere the central theme of his second-term foreign policy agenda.
Over the past two years, Americans rallied around Bush in the initial stages of the war but grew increasingly disillusioned as stepped-up insurgent attacks a year ago turned the conflict bloodier. Today, Americans offer a more nuanced assessment of the experience there and its impact both on the United States and the Middle East. Deep partisan divisions remain, with Republicans positive about the decision to go to war and Democrats strongly negative.
Foreign policy experts said they found the seemingly conflicting views about the past and the future consistent with long-standing attitudes about the use of U.S. military force. For starters, Americans rank promoting democracy abroad at or near the bottom of acceptable reasons for using military force.
"People just think this is not our mission, that we should not be the democracy policemen," said James B. Steinberg, vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "Even though they think they [the Iraqis] are better off, they're leery about the U.S. going out and doing these things."
Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the attitudes make it less likely that the Bush administration or future administrations will use the promotion of democracy to justify conflicts.
"Americans don't like putting Americans in harm's way and fighting wars for humanitarian reasons," he said, adding in an interview: "It means, by and large, the United States will not be spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet. There really isn't long-term mass support in public opinion for that kind of war."
But Bush's advocacy on behalf of democracy in the Middle East may be winning over skeptical Americans, and some advocates of the war believe that could have a lasting effect on opinions.
One of those supporters, William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, said negative judgments about the decision to go to war are understandable, even defensible, given that the administration used the threat of weapons of mass destruction as a cause for war and then never found any in Iraq. Nor, he said, did Bush anticipate or prepare the public for what turned out to be a far deadlier and longer period of U.S. occupation.