Q&A with Ole R. Holsti, author of American Public Opinion on the Iraq War

by Shaun Manning on October 26, 2011

Holsti_webLast week, President Obama announced that nearly all American troops would return from Iraq before the end of 2011; if this withdrawal takes place as planned, it would effectively end a war that has sharply divided public opinion since 2003. American Public Opinion on the Iraq War, then, is especially timely, giving context to the public relations campaigns and partisan conflicts that helped shape how America viewed the conflict. The author, Ole R. Holsti, is George V. Allen Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Duke University. He is a recipient of the International Society of Political Psychology’s Nevitt Sanford Award for distinguished professional contributions to political psychology as well as distinguished lifetime achievement awards from the ISPP and the American Political Science Association. His previous titles with University of Michigan Press are To See Ourselves as Others See Us: How Publics Abroad View the United States after 9/11 (2008) and Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (revised edition, 2004). American Public Opinion on the Iraq War is available now


The University of Michigan Press: After your introduction, you begin the book with an overview of America’s history with Iraq. You paint a thorough picture in the book itself, but, more briefly, how did the unique dynamic between the two countries develop?

Ole R. Holsti: Viscount Palmerston, a 19th century British Prime Minister, once declared, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies.”  The dynamics of relations between Washington and Baghdad provide ample support for that dictum: lack of diplomatic relations, a quasi-alliance, and two wars. More specifically, Iraq broke relations with the U.S. following the Yom Kippur War and Washington listed Iraq as supporter of terrorism.  After Iraq’s invasion of Iran–by now a fundamentalist Islamic regime–the Reagan administration took a number of steps to restore relations with Baghdad.  By removing Iraq from the terrorist list, it permitted the sale of “dual use” equipment to that country, including chemicals that were used in warfare against Iran and Iraq’s own Kurdish population.  Combined with the military intelligence provided to Baghdad, Iraq was able to avoid defeat by its larger and more populous neighbor. In 1990 the Saddam Hussein regime invaded Kuwait, perhaps assuming that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to the aggression.  In fact the George H.W. Bush administration demanded an immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces and, when Iraq failed to do so, it took the issue to the U.N. Security Council.  Supported by a series of S.C. resolutions, the U.S. led an impressive coalition of 34 countries, including many Islamic regimes, that invaded Iraq and forced the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  Not wanting to control Iraq, President Bush ordered the invading forces to stop short of Baghdad.  Saddam Hussein later recognized Kuwait’s independence, but Iraq fell short of complying with demands that inspectors be allowed to determine if it was in compliance with postwar prohibitions against weapons of mass destruction. When the George W. Bush administration came to office in 2001, it was committed to dealing with Iraq and what it assumed was Iraq’s possession of WMDs.  The September 11 terrorist attacks, which most top administration officials assumed were linked to Baghdad, put Iraq at the top of the Washington’s foreign policy agenda.  An invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces expelled the Taliban regime from Kabul and were shortly thereafter withdrawn to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. U.S. forces, aided by those from the UK, invaded Iraq in 2003.  The stated rationale was to remove a regime that possessed WMDs and had links to the al Qaeda terrorists who had conducted the 9/11 attacks.  Two expert teams of American inspectors who had been allowed into Iraq had been unable to find any WMDs, but President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed that the invasion would nevertheless take place. The invading forces captured Baghdad in less that three weeks, but the following years saw a near civil-war in Iraq that resulted in almost 4,500 U.S. military deaths.  At the end of 2008 the outgoing Bush administration signed an agreement with Iraq’s al-Maliki regime, subsequently approved by the Obama administration, that would result in the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011.  A plan to leave a small contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011 is, at this writing, very much in doubt as the al-Maliki government has stated that those forces would not be granted immunity.

UMP: In your research, did you find that certain events or developments significantly influenced public opinion on the war?

ORH: Numerous prewar surveys revealed that only a minority of respondents supported an invasion of Iraq if it were undertaken without support of NATO, the United Nations, or both.  However, after the capture of Baghdad in less than three weeks with relatively few casualties a substantial majority of Americans expressed approval of the invasion.  After events on the ground, including bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, raised increasing doubts about prewar administration claims that American forces would be greeted as liberators, surveys began to show declining numbers who believed that the U.S. had done “the right thing” in undertaking the invasion. By the 2004 election, respondents were about evenly divided on the issue, and for the next three years the number of critics increased rather steadily.  The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 resulted in an increase in support, but only temporarily.  U.S. casualties reached a high point during the first half of 2007.  The “surge” of U.S. troops in 2007-08 brought greater stability to Iraq, and surveys revealed a concomitant increase in those who judged that the situation in Iraq was “going well.” That said, most American continued to believe that the invasion was a “mistake.”


UMP: What sort of efforts did the Bush administration make to shape opinion of the war, and how successful were these efforts?

ORH: Every administration acts on Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that the White House provides a “bully pulpit” from which to seek support for its policies and to raise doubts about those of its opponents.  That said, the efforts of the Bush administration to generate support for its Iraq policies were quite unprecedented.  A secret program recruited about one hundred retired flag rank officers to appear as expert witnesses on a wide range of issues, including Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and ties to the 9/11 terrorists, and to trumpet the successes of American policies.  They were rewarded not only with payments for their numerous appearances, but also with many opportunities to promote the commercial interests of the defense industry firms for which they worked following retirement from the military. These efforts were relatively successful during the run up to the invasion and the early days following the capture of Baghdad.  Since the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had been a foreign leader that Americans “loved to hate.”  Ultimately, however, events on the ground–notably rising American casualties through early 2007–trumped the repeated assertions by administration officials that the war was worth its costs, that the military effort was succeeding, and that critics were simply playing into the hands of America’s enemies, including terrorists.   Even when the situation in Iraq stabilized somewhat after the 2007 “surge,” most Americans judged that the war had been a mistake.


UMP: Were there other factors affecting how Americans viewed the war?

ORH: There is overwhelming evidence that the most important factor in assessments of the war was partisan identification.  The Cold War consensus on American foreign and defense policies had largely been fractured by the Vietnam War, but the September 11 terrorist attacks found Americans united in many respects.  For example, the invasion of Afghanistan had overwhelming support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents.  The early military success in Iraq had similar support.  But as casualties mounted and the reasons for the invasion–Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda–turned out to be fictions, a growing partisan chasm developed.  Republicans continued to support the war and express the judgment that it was going well, whereas Democrats became increasingly critical.  In short, the Iraq war played an important role in the partisan cleavages that dominate contemporary American politics on most issues.


UMP: Do you find that there is or was a meaningful difference between the public’s perception of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and the Iraq War?

ORH: The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington provided a powerful backdrop for subsequent American policies, notably in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bush administration officials rarely missed on an opportunity to link the two efforts, asserting that victory in Iraq was a necessary and vital part of any effort to deal with terrorist threats to the country.   But there were also important critics of that position.  Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to the elder President Bush during the Gulf War, wrote in 2002 that an invasion of Iraq would in fact damage the GWOT.  As a result he was fired from his position on an intelligence agency board.  Surveys revealed that Americans were increasingly doubtful about that linkage.  Although there is little doubt that Saddam Hussein used terrorist groups, especially those opposing Israel, to his advantage, a major Defense Department sponsored study of some 600,000 captured Iraq documents failed to find any evidence of a Iraqi link to al Qaeda.


UMP: How did debate about the war, and public reception of that debate, influence the 2004 presidential election?

ORH: American elections are rarely, if ever, referenda on a single issue.  The 2004 election was not an exception. The incumbent Bush administration focused on the September 11 terrorist attacks and the importance of a victory in Iraq to avert another such disaster.   For example, Vice President Cheney asserted that a John Kerry victory would make the country vulnerable to another major terrorist attack.  At election time, Americans were almost evenly divided on whether the Iraq War was “the right thing” to do and “worth it.”  Moreover, disconfirmation of Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda came only later.  Perhaps the best summary of the issue comes from the conclusion of a major voting study: “the president’s advantage on terrorism narrowly trumped his disadvantage on the economy and Iraq.”


UMP: How does public opinion on this and other wars affect foreign policy, and has that influence changed between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama?

ORH: Foreign policy is not conducted by referendum and thus public opinion rarely has a direct impact on foreign policy.  Moreover, if any presidents have asserted that “I decided on X because the public demanded it,” or “I decided against Y because the public opposed it,”  it has escaped my attention.   Yet almost all leaders believe that it is hazardous to make decisions that consistently run against public preferences.   In recent years, most administrations have conducted their own surveys, often with a view to getting a handle on how best to frame issues in their efforts to “educate” the public.   Officials in the Bush administration were especially critical of surveys other than their own, arguing that they were invariably biased to yield results that were critical of their policies in Iraq and elsewhere. The Obama administration is presumably polling on such potentially controversial issues as his two decisions to increase American forces in Afghanistan, if only to provide some insights into how to frame the issue in his public statements, including in his Nobel Prize address in December 2009.


UMP: Is the progression of public opinion on the Iraq war also reflected on how Americans viewed the country’s operations in Libya?

This is being written less than 24 hours after the death of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.  American operations in support of rebels against the Gadhafi regime in Libya differed from the Iraq war in several very important respects.  No American ground forces were involved, thus limiting the number of casualties that the U.S. might suffer.  The operations had the full support of NATO.  Indeed, while the U.S. provided significant air cover and intelligence, France and the UK in fact played the lead role in many important respects, including air strikes on the Libyan dictator and his supporter. Although removal of Gadhafi as a goal resembled the removal of Saddam Hussein, ground operations in Libya were conducted solely by Libyans. The Libyan operations had lukewarm public support.  A Pew survey in March found that only 44% approved setting up a “no fly” zone, 27% approved of air strikes, and 13% would approve of sending ground forces into Libya.  By September support for air strikes had improved only slightly to 33%.   As on so many other issues, there were partisan differences, as revealed in a Gallup poll that found 54% approval of the intervention among Democrats and only 39% support from Republicans.  Some critics asserted that with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. did not need to be involved in another Middle East conflict.  Others attacked the administration for “leading from the rear” by relying on France and the UK to do much of the heavy lifting.  The removal of Gadhafi and his death will very likely result in increased retrospective public support for the Libyan operation, but that is unlikely to last nor to bridge the deep partisan chasms on almost all aspects of contemporary political scene. American Public Opinion on the Iraq War is available now.

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