Mar 18, 2023 - World

20 years on, most Americans say Iraq invasion was the wrong decision

George W. Bush informs Americans in televised remarks on March 19, 2003 that the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq had begun. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two decades after the U.S. invaded Iraq, 61% of Americans do not believe the U.S. made the right decision according to a new Axios/Ipsos poll.

Why it matters: The chaos and destruction that followed the invasion have made a generation of Americans and their leaders more skeptical of the use of military force overseas, in particular in the Middle East. The invasion toppled a brutal dictator but sparked 20 years of instability in Iraq, and damaged America's standing in the world.

Flashback: On March 17, 2003, George W. Bush issued an ultimatum that the U.S. would take military action if Saddam Hussein did not leave Iraq within 48 hours. On March 19, bombs began to fall on Baghdad. On March 20, the ground invasion commenced.

  • The invasion was extremely controversial overseas, but highly popular in the U.S. A Pew poll in Feb. 2003 found that 66% of Americans approved of military action in Iraq and only 26% disapproved.
  • However, the Bush administration had justified the invasion on the grounds that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. 57% of Americans at the time also believed, falsely, that Saddam had played a role in the 9/11 attacks, per Pew.

Timeline: U.S. forces took Baghdad in early April. Bush's now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech came on May 1, 2003, just five weeks into the war.

  • U.S. forces then spent eight years battling a determined insurgency. An estimated 200,000 Iraqis were killed along with nearly 5,000 U.S. troops. The war cost the U.S. an estimated $2 trillion.
  • By 2005, American public opinion had generally turned against the war, according to Pew, though most Republicans continued to support it. Around the world, and in particular, among European allies, attitudes toward the U.S. turned sharply negative in the years after the invasion.
  • Barack Obama made his opposition to the Iraq War a central tenet of his 2008 presidential campaign and promised to pull out within 16 months. Obama did withdraw the remaining U.S. forces in 2011 but was forced to send troops back three years later after ISIS conquered huge regions of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
  • Donald Trump criticized the war repeatedly during his 2016 campaign, falsely claiming he'd opposed it from the beginning and challenging rivals like Jeb Bush and later Hillary Clinton for supporting it.

The legacy of the war had significant effects on the foreign policies of both administrations.

  • When Obama was considering a military response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example, "you felt the ghost of Iraq that whole week," Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's top foreign policy advisers, said this week on the "Pod Save the World" podcast.
  • Both presidents were generally more reluctant to put American "boots on the ground" in conflict zones than their immediate predecessors, Bush and Bill Clinton.
  • That more cautious approach to the use of military force overseas appeared to be mirrored in U.S. public opinion. However, a 2022 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that most Americans would support military intervention in certain scenarios, such as if Russia invaded a NATO ally.

State of play: Just 31% of Americans think the Iraq War made America safer, while 36% think the U.S. was right to invade, according to the Axios/Ipsos poll published this week.

  • There is a clear partisan divide, however, with 58% of Republicans believing the U.S. was right to invade compared to 26% of Democrats.
  • Younger Americans, in particular, do not think the U.S. was right to invade Iraq, though majorities in every age group hold that view.

Methodology: The Axios/Ipsos Poll was conducted March 10-13, 2023, by Ipsos on their online survey panels in English. The poll is based on a sample of 1,018 general population adults age 18 or older, weighted on age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, and location to be nationally representative.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±3.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults.
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