Home » Home » A Look Back at How Fear and False Beliefs Bolstered U.S. Public Support for War in Iraq

A Look Back at How Fear and False Beliefs Bolstered U.S. Public Support for War in Iraq

Colin Powel inaccurate statement on Iraq at the UN Security Council, February 2003 (Historic archive photo - public domain for education only)

Colin Powel inaccurate statement on Iraq at the UN Security Council, February 2003 (Historic archive photo – public domain for education only)

WebPublicaPress – WASHINGTON – Twenty years ago this month, the United States launched a major military invasion of Iraq, marking the second time it fought a war in that country in a little more than a decade. It was the start of an eight-year conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemembers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. A new Pew Research Center data essay explores U.S. public opinion about the Iraq War and throughout the crucially important months leading up to the conflict.

The essay is based on an analysis of previously collected public opinion data between 2002-2019 from Pew Research Center, news reports and other sources.

Here are the highlights from the essay, and full text here. Also you may watch Colin Powell in UN Security Council in 2003. Also, CNN interview with Mr. Powell (2011) in which he regrets his inaccurate statements on Iraq from 2003.

Still reeling from the horrors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans were extraordinarily accepting of the possible use of military force as part of what President George W. Bush called the “global war on terror.”  

By early 2002, with U.S. troops already fighting in Afghanistan, large majorities of Americans favored the use of military force in Iraq to oust President Saddam Hussein from power and to destroy terrorist groups in Somalia and Sudan.
At that point, more than a year before the United States went to war, Americans overwhelmingly embraced several possible rationales for military action: 83% said that if the U.S. learned that Iraq had aided the 9/11 terrorists, that would be a “very important reason” to use military force in Iraq; nearly as many said the same if it was shown that Iraq was developing “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) (77%) or harboring other terrorists (75%).


The Bush administration’s claims that Iraq possessed WMD and had links to terrorism proved persuasive.

In October 2002, 65% of the public said Hussein was close to having nuclear weapons, while another 14% volunteered that he already possessed them. Just 11% said he was not close to developing such weapons.
While the administration asserted that Iraq had ties to terrorism and with al Qaeda, the terrorist group that attacked the United States on 9/11, senior officials never linked Hussein directly to the attacks. Yet in February 2003, a month before the start of the war, a 57% majority of Americans believed the falsehood that Saddam Hussein had aided the terrorists who attacked on 9/11.


Views about the use of military force in Iraq were divided along partisan lines well before the United States invaded Iraq. In the Center’s final survey before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, conducted in mid-February 2003, a sizable majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (83%) favored the use of military force to end Hussein’s rule. Democrats and Democratic leaners were less supportive; still, more Democrats favored (52%) than opposed (40%) military action. Yet Democrats were divided in opinions about whether to go to war in Iraq, with liberal Democrats less likely than conservative and moderate Democrats to favor using military force.


Americans initially rallied behind the war; then support plummeted.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, Americans rallied behind the war. Public support for the use of U.S. military force in Iraq rose to 74% in May 2003. However, it never again reached that level. A year later, the share of Americans who said the U.S. military effort in Iraq was going at least “fairly well” fell below 50% for the first time.
Americans’ doubts about the war increased throughout the remainder of Bush’s presidency. By 2007, Bush dispatched more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq in an effort to change the war’s trajectory. Yet a majority of the public favored withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. In November 2007, by 54% to 41%, more Americans favored bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible rather than keeping troops there until the situation had stabilized.
The Iraq War officially ended on Dec. 15, 2011. President Obama’s decision to withdraw all but a handful of U.S. forces drew overwhelming public support; a month before the war officially ended, 75% of Americans – including nearly half of Republicans – approved of Obama’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq.


Judgments on the Iraq War and its impact on Bush’s legacy: 

In 2018, the 15th anniversary of the start of the war, just 39% of Americans said the U.S. had succeeded in Iraq, while 53% said it had failed to achieve its goals.
The war’s impact on Americans’ views of Bush’s presidency was underscored in a December 2008 survey, conducted shortly before he left office. Asked what Bush would be most remembered for, roughly half (51%) cited wars, with 29% specifically mentioning the war in Iraq. No other issue, not even Bush’s leadership following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was mentioned as frequently.


Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on social media.

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