"Ultimately, events will matter most, not snapshots of public opinion," he said. "If Iraq is pretty stable and democratic and things are improving noticeably in the Middle East, that will be the fundamental judgment of the war."
The second anniversary is too early for drawing those kinds of conclusions, given the fluid nature of events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. One point that is clear today is that Americans saw Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a threat long before the war and continue to see him that way.
In the new poll, 56 percent said they think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the start of the war and 6 in 10 said they believe Iraq provided direct support to the al Qaeda terrorist network, which struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Also, 55 percent of Americans said the administration told people what it believed to be true, while 43 percent believe the administration deliberately misled the country.
Retrospective judgments of Bush's decision making are far more negative that they were two years ago as events were unfolding. For the first time in a Post-ABC poll, a majority (51 percent) called the war in Iraq a mistake. On the day Baghdad fell in April 2003, just 16 percent called the war a mistake and 81 percent said it was the right thing to do.
A plurality of Americans said the war has damaged this country's standing around the world, with 41 percent saying the U.S. position is weaker, 28 percent saying it is stronger and the rest saying it has made no difference. Two years ago, 52 percent said the war had made the U.S. position stronger, vs. 12 percent who said it was weaker.
Still, a majority of Americans (54 percent) said they believe most Iraqis support what this country is doing, and although a majority said the United States is bogged down in Iraq, more Americans believe the United States is making good progress than they did in the fall of 2004.
Nor is there great pressure to bring the troops home immediately. A plurality (44 percent) said troop strength in Iraq should be decreased, but only a quarter of the people who said that argued for an immediate withdrawal, translating to 12 percent of the total population. Far more of those calling for a troop reduction support a gradual withdrawal, leaving Bush a relatively free hand to determine the pace of such a move.
Party identification remains the great dividing line on public opinion about the war, as it has for the past year. The steady decline of support for the war was driven by growing Democratic opposition to Bush's policies, and those attitudes remain fixed. Four in 5 Democrats said the war was not worth fighting, whereas 4 in 5 Republicans said it was, and similar divisions exist on other judgments about the war. Partisan divisions on prospects for the Iraqis' future exist but are not as stark.
Americans are divided over whether the Iraq war makes it more or less likely that Bush will use military force to resolve disputes with other countries, but they are overwhelmingly opposed to such action to deal with Iran and North Korea -- countries Bush has singled out because of their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The public sees North Korea and Iran as threats to the United States, but by sizable majorities they oppose limited military action or invasion against either.
Among those surveyed who believe the war was not worth fighting but who see progress in the Middle East, there is clear ambivalence about U.S. policy. Geraldine Schneider, 69, of Sarasota, Fla., called the war "unsuccessful and the wrong thing to do." But she said it has benefited Iraqis. "In some ways they are better off," she said. "They certainly have a little more freedom."
Larry Kuebler, 65, of Saginaw, Mich., is cautiously optimistic. "The people who were oppressed have a better advantage than they had before," he said. "Eventually things will get better for Iraqis; when they get their own army, their own police, their own democratic system, they will be better off, in the very long run. But it will take time."
Kuebler proudly flies an American flag outside his house. When a local man or woman was killed on injured in Iraq, he would briefly lower the flag to half-staff. "I was moving it up and down every other day," he recalled. "It's at half-staff now, and that's where it is staying. I will not move it until it is over."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.