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How Strong Is Sentiment Against The Iraq War?

At the moment, President Bush’s ratings on handling the war in Iraq are decidedly negative. So it seems an opportune time to ask: How much of a problem is that for his presidency?

Here’s the current public opinion landscape. In the Aug. 25-28 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent disapproved of Bush’s handling of the war — including 46 percent who disapproved strongly — compared to 42 percent who approved. And in an early August Gallup poll, 54 percent said the war was a mistake. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yet 54 percent of respondents in the ABC/Post poll said that we should keep our forces there until civil order is restored, while 44 percent wanted to withdraw them to prevent additional casualties.

In the September/October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Daniel Yankelovich, one of the most highly respected voices in the survey business, writes about the new Public Agenda/Foreign Affairs Confidence in Foreign Policy Index and concludes that, absent a “huge spike” in insurgency violence, “the Bush administration has about a year before public impatience will force it to change course.”

In the only question of its kind that has been asked recently, by Westhill Partners/Hotline in July, 40 percent of respondents said they trusted the Republicans more to successfully finish the job in Iraq, while 28 percent trusted the Democrats.

And hardly anyone believes that if U.S. troops leave Iraq, the terrorist threat will disappear.

Anti-war Protests of the Past. During the Vietnam War, solid majorities of Americans supported the right of people to protest. But they did not approve of the protests or protesters.

In 1969, when an unambiguous 55 percent called themselves “doves” — that is, people who wanted “to reduce our military effort” in Vietnam, according to Gallup’s wording — 77 percent of respondents in a CBS News poll disapproved of the protests.

A 1986 Yankelovich Clancy Shulman survey of 30 to 40-year-olds found that 75 percent of this “Vietnam generation” were “not active at all” in the demonstrations of their era, compared to just 2 percent who remembered being “very active.”

In questions asked by three separate polls — Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, Gallup/CNN/USA Today, and ABC News/Washington Post — in March 2003 more than 95 percent said that they had not participated in any kind of anti-war demonstration.

In another question from the 1986 Yankelovich survey, 35 percent of the Vietnam generation believed that the demonstrations helped to bring an end to the war, compared to 11 percent who said they prolonged it and 49 percent who said they didn’t make a difference either way.

Cindy Sheehan. In a late-August ABC/Post poll, 53 percent of respondents supported what Cindy Sheehan — an anti-war activist whose son was killed in the war, who staged a protest outside of Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch in August, demanding to meet with the president — was doing, including 29 percent who supported her strongly, compared to 42 percent who opposed her actions.

The Aug. 28-30 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 42 percent sympathized with her for her loss and agreed with her actions, while 49 percent sympathized but did not agree with her actions. Six percent didn’t have much sympathy for her because of her actions.

In the ABC/Post poll, 79 percent said that Sheehan had made no impact on their views about the war. Ten percent said her actions had made them more likely to support the war, while 9 percent more likely to oppose it. Gallup’s results were similar: Seventy-two percent said Sheehan’s actions had made no difference to them, while 13 percent said it made them more likely to get involved in anti-war activities and 12 percent said it made them more likely to get involved in pro-war activities.

Fifty-two percent of respondents in the ABC/Post poll and 58 percent in the Gallup poll said Bush should have met with Sheehan.

And in the Aug. 29-31 CBS poll, 27 percent had a favorable opinion of Sheehan and 26 percent had an unfavorable one. The rest didn’t know or weren’t following the story.

Hard-Core Anti-War. We don’t know how large the anti-war contingent is today. But here’s some historical context.

Before the Korean and Vietnam wars, about 20 percent strongly opposed our involvement. Roughly 20 percent strongly opposed the Iraq war before it began. For this group — the “peace party,” as James Wilson and I described it in the fall 2003 edition of the Public Interest — it didn’t matter if our allies supported the war. Nor did it matter if the United Nations did. They simply opposed going to war.

If removing our troops now is a proxy for hard-core anti-war sentiment, the polls provide divergent impressions.

In Gallup’s new poll, 26 percent said we should withdraw all our troops immediately (up from 14 percent in August 2003). The new ABC/Post poll finds 13 percent wanting to withdraw them all immediately and 27 percent favoring a decreased number of troops but not an immediate withdrawal.

In the Gallup poll, 19 percent wanted to send more troops. In the ABC/Post poll, 21 percent did.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.