By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Americans are more upbeat about U.S. prospects in Iraq than at any time in the past five years, but nearly two-thirds continue to believe the war is not worth fighting and 70 percent say President-elect Barack Obama should fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. forces from the country within 16 months, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Meanwhile, most Americans support the war in Afghanistan and a slim majority said the conflict there is essential to battling global terrorism, the poll found. Yet, a majority of Americans also believe that the U.S. military action there has been unsuccessful.
Public perceptions of the two wars appear to largely dovetail with the views expressed by Obama, who has promised to begin withdrawing most combat troops from Iraq shortly after he takes office Jan. 20. Obama has advocated shifting more U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led coalition has been struggling to quell resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
The poll findings show that Americans expect Obama to shift U.S. policy in a way that key nominees for his national security team have cautioned against in the past. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, national security adviser-designate James L. Jones and secretary-of-state nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton have questioned Obama's timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, saying the U.S. pullback must occur in a way that does not open the door to a surge of violence.
Since his election, Obama has reiterated support for a 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, which he said would be achieved by redeploying combat troops at a pace of one to two brigades a month. The president-elect has said that his top priority will be ensuring that U.S. troops remain safe during the transition and that Iraq's people "are well served" as its government takes greater control of that country's security.
Over the weekend, President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi leaders about the recently completed security agreement, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. Bush's visit was aimed in part at highlighting vastly improved security conditions in Iraq since he ordered additional U.S. troops there nearly two years ago. But that symbolic moment was largely overshadowed by an incident in which an Iraqi television journalist, angry about the U.S. invasion, threw two shoes at Bush during a news conference.
Iraqis demonstrated in the streets yesterday demanding the release of the journalist after he was detained by authorities, as Arabs across the Middle East hailed him as a hero who reflected their anger at U.S. policies.
Still, much of the American public agrees that security is improving in Iraq, a view that does not change their basic opposition to the war. Fifty-six percent said the United States is making significant progress toward restoring order in Iraq. Overall, two-thirds of Americans are optimistic about U.S. prospects in Iraq over the next year, a rising level of confidence that is rooted in improved assessments of security on the ground and widespread expectations that Obama will be able to wind down the U.S. role there.
Two years ago, 57 percent of Americans held a negative outlook on the situation in Iraq; now just 30 percent are downbeat about the next 12 months there. The growing optimism going into the Obama administration is most pronounced among Democrats, two-thirds of whom are upbeat about the future in Iraq. Over the past year, the percentage of Democrats seeing significant progress in Iraq has more than doubled, to 39 percent, the poll found.
Despite growing perceptions of progress, most Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq. The poll found that seven in 10 Americans think Obama should stick to his plan to withdraw most U.S. forces within 16 months, although there is some division about how quickly he should move on that promise. A majority of those who say the war is not worth its costs want Obama to focus on the pullout immediately, while those who support the war think he should move more slowly, if at all.
The mounting confidence in U.S. efforts in Iraq stands in contrast to views about the war in Afghanistan, which 51 percent of those surveyed said is not going well. With violence in Afghanistan now at levels not seen since the U.S. invasion in 2001, the public is almost evenly divided about American prospects there -- 49 percent are optimistic, and 47 percent are pessimistic.
Gates has said that the United States will have to send thousands of troops into Afghanistan next year, and that a sustained U.S. presence is probably needed for several years. Still, 55 percent of Americans said the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting -- a view that far fewer Americans share about the war in Iraq, which since the 2003 invasion has claimed the lives of more than 4,200 members of the U.S. military while costing American taxpayers nearly $600 billion.
Public views about Iraq are central to assessments of Bush's job performance and his legacy. From the outset of the war, negative attitudes about the U.S. effort in Iraq have moved higher nearly in lock step with public disapproval of the president.
Today, 30 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is doing his job; 68 percent disapprove. Bush's approval numbers are up somewhat from the fall presidential campaign, when they bottomed out at 23 percent in Post-ABC News polling, but he gets little direct credit for improved perceptions of the situation in Iraq now.
Bush has been below 50 percent in approval ratings for nearly four years, a record in presidential public opinion polls dating back 70 years. The last time a majority called the war worth fighting was in September 2004.
The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone Dec. 11 to 14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are larger.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.