June 12, 2014

More Americans say U.S. failed to achieve its goals in Iraq

As Sunni militants make a major military push against the central government in Iraq, the Obama administration is said to have rebuffed requests from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to carry out airstrikes at extremist bases. That reported reluctance follows years of U.S. military intervention in Iraq that many Americans say was misguided and failed to achieve its goals.

Iraq War in U.S. public opinionAbout half (52%) of Americans said the U.S. had mostly failed to achieve its goals in Iraq compared with 37% who said it had succeeded, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. That amounted to a 19-point decline in perceived success since 2011. And, by about the same margin (50% to 38%), the public said the U.S. had made the wrong decision in using military force in Iraq. 

This represented a shift in public opinion since the earlier years of the Iraq war. In August 2006, about three years into the conflict, Americans believed by 54% to 40% that the U.S. would succeed in achieving its goals. During that same month, Americans were almost evenly divided on whether waging the war was the right decision.

When America first went to war in Iraq in March 2003 on the premise that Saddam Hussein was trying to amass chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, polls showed roughly seven-in-ten Americans backing it as the right decision. But the toppling of Hussein gave way to a grinding sectarian civil war, and American sentiment changed as U.S. forces were drawn in at a high cost, with 4,486 service members losing their lives. The share of Americans who believed U.S. military involvement in Iraq was the right decision fell steadily over the years and has fluctuated mostly below the 50% mark from February 2006 to the present.

There’s little in the way of partisan differences on the subject of success in Iraq. About four-in-ten Democrats, Republicans and independents said in January this year that the U.S. had succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq. That was a big falloff for Republicans, 68% of whom said in November 2011 that U.S. efforts had succeeded.

Topics: Wars and International Conflicts, Military and Veterans, Middle East and North Africa

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. joe3 years ago

    please MR . OBAMA live this middle east people in their own situation. they call u for help and than attack minority Christians. USA BRITIAN Australia is safe for Christians , but think about Christians who will be affected in countries like this and in ASIA . live them in their own situation. if they don’t need your help .please live them alone .if you don’t help still they will target you by saying you are super power and don’t help. please think about us as minorities.

  2. Dennis Bartholomew3 years ago

    A serious difficulty in evaluating success in Iraq is that there does not seem to be a clear agreement on what our “goals” were in Iraq.

    There are actually two sets of goals in Iraq: 1. The goals stated when first invading Iraq and 2. goals that developed later ONLY after we occupied Iraq.

    Our original goals were:
    1.1 Removing Saddam. We succeeded 100% in that.

    1.2 A second, related goal was eliminating “weapons of mass destruction.” We either succeeded 100% in that, there are no WMDs, or we succeeded 0%, there never were any WMDs to destroy. I think at this point most Americans would say we had a 0% success in this goal.

    1.3 The only remaining original goal, often not fully articulated, was to allow Iraq to install a non-Saddam democratic government. We could have had a 100% in that goal, that is, we could have removed Saddam held an election and left. But the plans changed and the US at this point opted for an occupation, and this led to a whole new set of goals.

    Our occupation goals now became:
    2.1 De-baath-ize the country. We pretty much succeeded in that, I’d give it a 100%, although there is serious question that that goal was even needed.

    2.2 End a newly formed “insurgency” based largely on religious divisions and oppositin to an occupying force. I view this goal as an abject failure, even though we ultimately reduced the insurgency to a point where we could withdraw our troops more or less gracefully. I view this as a 0% success, because it was our actions that caused the problem and we then spent a trillion dollars and thousands of lives on a problem that didn’t exist until we occupied the country.

    2.3 Institute democracy in Iraq. This is the goal most people focus on. Did we succeed? We sort of did. There was an election that appeared to be reasonably fair and democratic. In my view that is all we could have done. The US cannot and should not be expected to oversee Iraq, or any other country, and make sure they maintain a strong democratic society forever. It makes no sense to think that the US should have left a residual military force, or a strong dipolimatic corps, or some other unnamed force, that will look over Iraq’s shoulder and guarantee they maintain a democratic tradition. Iraq, like every country, must govern itself and develop, hopefully, its own democratic government.

    In conclusion, we have mixed results. The original goal, remove Saddam and the WMDs was real easy to do and we did it. The ad hoc goals, occupy, pacify and democratize the country can be viewed as a Pyrhic victory. We sort of ended the insurgency and installed a sort-of democratic government. But the incredible cost of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and the instability of the government that was created, made this “victory” a horrible defeat in reality.

  3. James Nuzzello3 years ago

    Iraq did possess biological weapons. I am surprised how fast people forget Saddam killed thousands of Kurds, and both Iran and Iraq used chemical warfare on each other. I knew it would take at least ten years for the region to settle down after Saddam was out, but these people have a two thousand year old religious war going on between themselves. Come to think about it Saddam kept the borders, and the separate religious factions under control. Its no surprise we have a huge mess on our hands to date. We could have had electric powered anything we needed fifty years ago. But sucking up their oil was more important, because we didn’t want to use our own. You think they don’t know that over there. The love of money is the root to all evil. Did we forget that fast too?

  4. robert marshall3 years ago

    “More Americans say U.S. failed to achieve its goals in Iraq” – What goals? The government officials that involved the US armed forces in Iraq failed to articulate any goals beyond removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, which was accomplished. After liberating Iraq from Saddam, what other goals did we attempt to implement?