The evolution of support over time

Support for the war and its evolution over time can be measured in various ways. In discussing the levels of support for the war in Iraq (or, for that matter, any war), we should make a distinction between support in absolute or relative terms on the one hand and its evolution over time on the other hand. The first can be measured in various ways and, as we surmise, support will vary depending on the wording of the questions. However, the sensitivity to particular wordings may differ across countries (for reasons that need further exploration), which may produce differences in overall support.

Although, as shall be shown below, as in previous cases, the pattern of the evolution of support presents remarkable similarities across countries and questions, there are also notable differences in the level of support, depending on the way questions are phrased and the aspects they are addressing.

During the period under review, March 2003 to June 2009, many different questions were asked, with various frequencies.41 The responses can be aggregated into eight different groups. With the exception of the question of whether casualties are acceptable or not (which consists of just one question) each of these groups consists of several questions. The results presented below (Figure 5.13) are based on average figures per month for the total of all questions asked in that month in either the US or the UK (the only European countries for which reliable time series are available).

We start our analysis by tracing how support evolved over time, in both the US and other (particularly European) countries.

The general picture that emerges from Figure 5.13 is one of an increase of support at the beginning of the war, leading to fairly high original support followed by a more or less steady decline over time according to all measurements. Like in the case of Afghanistan, over time, support diminished almost monotonously, however it was measured. There are but two exceptions to this general pattern. One is the already mentioned brief upswing at the beginning of the war, the other is a temporary upturn in December 2003, after the capture of Saddam Hussein.

While all indicators of support decline over time, some do so more rapidly than others, and there are, moreover, considerable differences among the absolute levels of the different measures. Adding a reference to the removal of Saddam Hussein (the dimensions of values/interests), for instance, adds some ten percentage points to support scores. Support levels are considerably reduced, on the other hand, by introducing the element of trade-off between gains and losses (human and otherwise) in the question.

American and British attitudes on the war in Iraq (2003-2009) (in % 'support')

Figure 5.13 American and British attitudes on the war in Iraq (2003-2009) (in % 'support')

Note: The full formats of the questions displayed here as well as the sources for these data can be found in: Everts and Isernia (2005); or 2005 and beyond Polls Archive, Institute for International Studies, Leiden University, available at politicalscience/research/research-data/everts-powe.html.

To create full graphs values for missing observations have sometimes been interpolated. Whenever more observations were available for one month, averages have been taken.

The lowest level of support is produced by the figures for acceptability of casualties without mentioning goals or values involved. As casualties mounted, so did the fact that soldiers got killed in Iraq become ever less acceptable to the American public.42 Does this prove that the hypothesis of 'casualty aversion' (in its simple form) has been vindicated? To some extent it does, because of the evident effect this way of phrasing the poll question has on degree of support. On the other hand, it does not, in the sense that some people may well (and in fact most probably still did) continue to support the war if asked in a different fashion. It all depends on the consequences they attach to saying that casualties are 'unacceptable'. The fact that this particular graph shows the steepest decline of all measures of support suggests that not all of the aversion to casualties translates into rejection of the war as measured in other ways.

The only pattern which deviates from the others is that of perceptions of the success of the war effort, actual or expected. Initially, while the belief that the war was going well declined rapidly, support for the action was not that much affected and remained much higher. The capture of Saddam Hussein caused a considerable, but as it turned out temporary, increase in optimism and, interestingly enough, this optimism, while diminishing over time like the other indicators, did not return to the low pre-December 2003 level.

Nevertheless, there is little room for doubt that the perceived lack of results and actual casualties (either in absolute or cumulative terms) were indeed reducing mission support as well as the acceptability of these casualties. The exact causal relationship between the latter two remains to be explored in more detail, however.43

In order to show more clearly existing general tendencies and to inspect the impact of differences in question wording, trends, in the form of logarithmic functions, were calculated for each of the sets of questions displayed in Figure 5.13. Since it is really a different kind of question, giving an assessment of (expected) developments rather than a normative judgement, the questions on whether the war is going well or not has been left out in Figure 5.13.

As can be seen below, the representation by the trend lines in Table 5.10 provides a remarkable fit of the raw data for all groups of questions. Despite the fact that different question wordings produce different levels of absolute support, the patterns of decline are largely similar. So, whatever measure we use, they all show the varying but sharp initial decline and the leveling of in asymptotic fashion in all cases.

The explanation of the differences in levels of support depending on the wording of the question is fairly self-evident in all cases. General questions, such as 'Do you favor or oppose the war?' or 'Is the war in Iraq right or wrong' produced the highest degree of support. An explicit reference to the goal of removing Saddam Hussein drove up support. It should be borne in mind, however, that especially in the case of the latter, the time series of questions is relatively short and therefore does not show the general erosive effect of the evolution of time, which is so evident in the other cases. This has an upward effect on the level of support. Similar and hardly lower support levels were produced when

Table 5.10 American and British attitudes on the war in Iraq, trendlines (20032009)

average support US

Y = -10.33Ln(x) + 75.01

R2 = 0.95

result of war worth losses of life

Y = -7.92Ln(x) + 60.08

R2 = 0.80

removing Saddam Hussein worth losses of life

Y = -8.20Ln(x) + 60.60

R2 = 0.81

casualties acceptable

Y = -11.76Ln(x) + 64.82

R2 = 0.88

war worth fighting

Y = -8.91Ln(x) + 73.12

R2 = 0.88

war right or wrong decision

Y = -9.38Ln(x) + 78.23

R2 = 0.89

favor or oppose the war

Y = -11.22Ln(x) + 81.83

R2 = 0.87

war right or mistake

Y = -10.38Ln(x) + 82.23

R2 = 0.86

average support UK

Y = -8.83Ln(x) + 62.5

R2 = 0.81

war justified

Y = -4.86Ln(x) + 56.75

R2 = 0.47

war right thing

Y = -11.15Ln(x) + 670.94

R2 = 0.88

Sources: See Figure 5.13.

the questions referred to whether the decision to go to war had been either right or wrong, or right or a mistake. Support started to decline, however, whenever respondents were faced with the issue of trade-offs, either in general ('worth the costs') or with explicit reference to the other side of the coin ('worth the losses of life').

In the first case ('worth the effort'), this leads to a further five percent decline. Adding a specific reference to losses of life reduced support by another ten percent, but mentioning the removal of Saddam Hussein as well had a positive effect again (of some 8 percent).

Finally, the lowest levels of support are reached when respondents are requested specifically whether the losses of life have been 'acceptable' or not, without referring to the possible benefits of the war or the correctness of the initial decision. The latter question also shows the sharpest decline in support over time.

Further research into other cases is necessary before a firmer answer can be given, however. Figures 5.13 and 5.14 also suggest a more general insight in the determinants of public support for war, already referred to above, in Chapter 1. It looks as if there are three groups of people: 1) a group of hawks that support war whenever the government decides that this is necessary and in the interest of the country and that is not swayed by counterarguments like interest, justification, legitimacy and costs of various kinds, 2) a group of pacifist doves, which oppose war whatever the arguments or justification. In the Iraqi case, each of these two groups consists of some 30 percent of the electorate. There is, however, also a third group in the middle which can turn either way

Support for the war in Iraq, before and during the war, in US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland and United Kingdom (2002-2005) (in % 'support')

Figure 5.14 Support for the war in Iraq, before and during the war, in US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland and United Kingdom (2002-2005) (in % 'support')

depending on the framing of the problem and question wording in polls and particularly depending on the way they are confronted with trade-offs and interests, with the likelihood of success, and with costs of various kinds. One might refer to this group as waverers.

Figure 5.14 illustrates the various patterns in the evolution of support for the war in Iraq that can be observed not only in the US, but also in different countries outside the US for which trend data are available and that can be compared with the American pattern.

Based on Figure 5.14, three phases of the war can be distinguished in this respect: 1) Before the war 2) The initiation of war and 3) The war itself [in the case of Iraq we cannot yet speak of 4) - The postwar phase]. In phase 1) the US differs from all other countries for which we have data. Support is high (majorities in favor), but very low in France and Germany but only moderately low in Canada, Australia and the UK. In phase 2) we see a remarkable rally effect in the UK, where it is much stronger than in the US (where support was already high). In the UK this turns the minority into a majority of high support. Similar obvious rally effects can be seen in Australia, which did participate, and

Canada, which did not. The Canadian case is interesting because the rally effect is usually seen as a positive reaction to a change in government policy (which did not happen in Canada). In phase 3) we see very similar patterns (including fluctuations) of declining support setting in as soon as the initial phase of the war is over in each of the three countries for which data are available. The decline starts from different levels, however: high in the US, medium in the UK, and low in Poland.

In phases 2) and 3) support remains at the very low pre-war level in France as well as Germany. However, as we shall see below (and is further demonstrated in Table 5.14, columns 5-10), one can also distinguish a phase 4) which began shortly after President Bush made his untimely 'Mission accomplished' announcement. It was characterized by further violence on the ground in Iraq and growing disenchantment with the situation and the outcome of the intervention. The outcomes can be summarized as in Table 5.11.

By the end of 2003, it had become clear that whatever the original support and acceptability of the motives for going to war, the events since going to war - including the fact that the alleged weapons of mass destruction had not been found - made for a generally shared feeling that the war had not been justified.

After this general, impressionistic view of differences and similarities in international trends, we now want to look in more detail, and somewhat more systematically, at attitudes across the Atlantic.

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