Politics over principle? Democrats seem more likely to support Obama's Iraq war than Bush's

Republican support for the war has been in steady decline since 2003, but Democratic backing has actually risen significantly since Obama took office.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
President Obama and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stand together after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, December 2011.

The Pew Research Center released its latest poll on American views of the Iraq war a few days ago and the headline number was that only 44 percent of Americans at present think the invasion was a bad idea ( 41 percent think it was a wise decision).

That's of course a huge shift from US opinions on the eve of the invasion, when a nation frightened by the 9/11 attacks carried out by Al Qaeda had 72 percent public support against only 22 percent opposition. Hardly surprising, given that some scholars estimate the war will have eventually cost the US more than $2 trillion (and more when the effects on the national debt are considered), the at least 100,000 Iraqi lives lost, and the thousands of US soldiers killed and wounded.

The war also strengthened the hand of Iran in the region, bringing to power a Shiite government far friendlier to Tehran than Saddam Hussein's regime.

But while the ongoing high level of support for the war is somewhat surprising (at least to me), what's troubling is the partisan nature of people's views on a war that began 10 years ago and is now well and truly over, and most interesting is how views have shifted between Republicans and Democrats since President Obama took office in 2009.

Today, 58 percent of Republicans say the invasion was the right choice (down from 90 percent a decade ago), 33 percent of Democrats (down from 50 percent) and 42 percent of independents (down from 66 percent). "So what," you might say. Republicans tend to be more hawkish and supported their team. But what's really eye-catching about support for the war is how Republican support has plunged since Obama took office and how Democrat support has... surged.


In 2008, 73 percent of Republicans were still for the war and continued their sharp decline (for a larger image, see Pew's graph here). But Democrats' support for the Iraq war more than doubled from 17 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2011 before settling back to 33 percent today, still far higher than it was before Obama took office.

I can't think of any explanation for this other than that rosy, optimistic feeling Democrats have in general about the world with their guy in office, and the cold, pessimistic feeling that Republicans have. It's possible that the growth in Democratic support also reflects the entrance of young voters, who were focused on homework and prom dates during the worst of the war, entering the sample. Or maybe it was just that the war was winding down and ending since Obama took office, taking the edge off people's negative feelings. But those possible reasons doesn't show up on the Republican side of the equation.

Hyper-partisanship has long been studied by political scientists. Present a proposal to an ideological partisan as coming from their team, and they're inclined to support it. Present precisely the same proposal as coming from the bad guys, and they're inclined to oppose it. But this is still striking.

And it doesn't stop there. Pew started asking voters "has the US succeeded in Iraq" in 2006. Then, 82 percent of Republicans said yes, 34 percent of Democrats said yes, and the independents were right in the middle, with 54 percent saying yes. After Obama's election, Democrats put on rose-tinted glasses, with "yes" answers surging to 56 percent by 2011, while Republican views sharply declined, to 68 percent. The independents at the start of 2011? Little changed (the graph for all that is here).

Pew didn't ask the question last year. And in the latest poll, all three groups declined (to 56 percent for Republicans, 45 percent for Democrats, and 41 percent for independents). Only the Democrats have a higher view of the outcome of the war today than they held in 2006.

Maybe there's an explanation for all this that I'm missing (Democrat joy that Obama preceded over an end of the war, thus achieving an objective?), but I can't think of one that convinces (me, at least).

The lesson seems clear: If you're looking for clear-thinking on the war, try to find an independent.

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