By CBS News pollster Anthony Salvanto
Most Americans think the Iraq war is going badly — two-thirds say so in the latest — and for most, the bad results they see now also mean the decision to go war was wrong in the first place.
That connection doesn't hold for Republicans, though: They tend to call the war the right thing no matter how they see it going. That's not just loyalty to President Bush — many in his party do in fact question how he is handling Iraq now — but it's also because of their views on how best to fight terrorism; their still-salient memories of Saddam Hussein; and their willingness to give the administration credit for going after perceived threats, past and present.
Republicans' views of how the war is going are mixed — just under half say things are bad and just over half, 53 percent, say they're going well. But a far greater number, 73 percent, nonetheless support the war by calling it the right thing to have done.
Even those Republicans who think the war is going badly now are mostly inclined to call the war the right thing, anyway. In combined interviews from polls in May and July, 51 percent do. By comparison, only 21 percent of independents who see things going badly call the decision the right thing, and just 15 percent of Democrats who think it's going badly (nearly all of them) say the same. So for the latter two groups, a war that isn't going well is a war we never should've fought. For Republicans, there is still merit to having gone in.
One reason for this is their agreement with the president's stated overall approach to fighting terror. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans say that as a general rule, the United States will be safer in the long run if it "confronts" nations and groups in the Middle East that promote terrorism, as opposed to staying out of their affairs. (Democrats, by contrast, strongly favor the latter option; 72 percent say we would be better off steering clear.)
Confrontation doesn't necessarily mean military action, of course. But with Saddam Hussein, it did. Years into the Iraq war, the deposed dictator still has a central role in how Republicans look at the conflict. They still laud the administration for ousting him.
A few times in 2005 and 2006, we asked respondents to say in their own words what they believed was the president's rationale for war, and Republicans chiefly gave answers revolving around defending the nation. Saddam himself is remembered as a danger waiting to strike; as one Republican from New Mexico colorfully put it to our survey takers: "If ... you had a rattlesnake in your living room, you'd do your best to take it out then and there. It's the same thing. ..." Another called him "a powder keg waiting to go off."
There were hints of this Saddam-centered calculus even early in the war, too. In the summer of 2003, when Iraq's supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction had still failed to turn up, most Republicans said it didn't matter to them. They told us that the war would still have been worth it if there were no weapons — because, they volunteered when asked why, Saddam was out of power. (Most Democrats, by comparison, said it did matter.)
And what of today's enemies? Republicans continue to see Iraq as part of the larger war on terror, following the administration's characterization: 75 percent call it part of that larger effort, and most say it is a major part. Once again, they differ from Democrats and independents, who don't see such a connection.
A lot of Republicans think it is an effective fight today — which helps explain why about half of them say the war is going well. Republicans are more than twice as likely as Americans overall to say the effort in Iraq is now eliminating terrorists planning to hit the United States. They overwhelmingly rated efforts in Iraq as going well overall during in our interviews in June and July, and nearly all of them also call the war the right thing. A majority of Republicans who think Iraq isn't eliminating terrorists now still call the war the right thing, but they offered only mixed assessments of progress.
The broader struggle against terrorism remains the administration's hole card with its Republican base. Even though most Republicans still approve of the president's performance on Iraq (57 percent in the latest poll), that is far lower than the ratings they give him on handling terrorism generally: 74 percent. Two years ago, the ratings were both very high. Further, when asked directly about the administration's handling of the war over time, four in 10 Republicans today describe them as having done well at the start, but badly in the last couple of years.
Going forward, this explains the delicate balance GOP presidential candidates might need to keep in choosing their political words during the primary season, being mindful of concerns about progress and strategies in Iraq today, yet still advocating an aggressive approach to confronting terror threats — of which the decision to go to Iraq still stands, for Republicans, as a prime example and a good move.
By Anthony Salvanto