No, Americans are not misremembering their support for the Iraq War

May 27, 2015

Richard Eichenberg

Twitter: @IkeEichenberg

A recent YouGov/Economist survey seems to suggest that the American people are misremembering their level of support for the Iraq invasion in 2003.  As the figure below shows, only 38% of Americans say today that they supported sending troops to Iraq back in 2003, whereas 63% of Americans said they supported the invasion in a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted in February 2003.  YouGov’s interpretation: “Americans’ memories of their own past beliefs about the 2003 Iraq War are tinged with their current feelings about what has taken place there since and what is taking place there now.”


There is one problem with this interpretation: it is wrong.  The 2015 question from YouGov was asked after respondents had been exposed to extensive reporting and public debate about the human costs and the frustrations of the war.  In order to accurately compare results from 2003 and 2015, the appropriate question therefore is how the public evaluated a possible war in 2003 when similar considerations were included in survey questions (the Gallup/CNN/USA Today question from 2003 does not mention these considerations).

My own research, along with research I’ve conducted with Richard Stoll, show that citizens’ answers in 2003 were very close to what they think today. True, as shown below, in 49 individual survey questions that were asked from the beginning of 2003 through the day before the invasion, 62% of Americans favored some form of military action –almost identical to the 2003 numbers shown above.  However, as the chart below also shows, in the fourteen available questions that mentioned “ground troops” in the same time period, the percentage was lower – 57%.  Further, if casualties were mentioned in conjunction with any military action, support was 52%. Finally, if sending ground troops and casualties were both specifically mentioned in the question, support dropped to 42% –not far off the number that You/Gov ascertained just last week (the 3 questions were asked in the last three months of 2002).


In summary, when Americans were asked before the war began in 2003 if they would support sending troops that would experience casualties, far less than a majority said yes.  And that is about the same number who say they remember it that way in the YouGov poll.

The view that the American people supported the war in 2003 seems to be widespread, and these polls help us to understand why.  Polling organizations asked about support for the war 49 times from the beginning of 2003 through the day of the invasion of Iraq, but only 4 of those questions asked about support if casualties would be suffered.  More than half of the questions (26) referred to an unspecified, abstract “military action,” for which average support was 66%, but as the figure above shows, support was much lower when specific actions or casualties were mentioned.

The potential skepticism of the public about the war that was about to occur was underestimated for a simple reason: the pollsters rarely asked the right question.  One thing is clear however: the recent You/Gov poll shows that American citizens accurately remember they opposed the war that they got.


I am grateful to Jeffrey Berry, Debbie Schildkraut, Richard Stoll, and Janie Velencia  for comments on an earlier draft



Richard Eichenberg, “Victory Has Many Friends: The American Public and the Use of Military Force, 1981-2005,” International Security 35/1, (Summer 2005).

Richard Eichenberg and Richard Stoll, The Political Fortunes of War: Iraq and the Domestic Standing of President George W. Bush,  London: The Foreign Policy Centre, July 2004.