March 20 marks the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. In large part because of the surge, American attitudes have shifted in a positive direction since the beginning of the war.
The decision to go to war is one of the most consequential a nation can make. No sane country wants to put its sons and daughters in harm's way. Missions need to be clearly defined, and the public has to feel that they are being prosecuted successfully.
Americans understood the mission in Iraq from the beginning. Polling conducted more than a decade before the war shows that Americans thought Saddam Hussein was a thug and that the world was better off without him.
On 10 occasions between 1991 and 2001, CBS News/New York Times interviewers asked Americans whether "the United States should have stopped fighting when Iraqi troops left Kuwait [in February 1991] or whether the U.S. should have continued fighting Iraq until Saddam Hussein was removed from power."
On each occasion when the question was asked, 60% or more said the U.S. should have continued fighting to get rid of Saddam. Given those early negative impressions made during Saddam's military adventure in Kuwait, it isn't surprising that many Americans (and members of Congress) believed he could have been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
This is something a sizable number of Americans still believe. In October 2008, 37% of people polled told Harris Interactive interviewers that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded, about the same proportion that gave the response in 2004.
So the mission was clear in the public mind. And early on, people believed the war was being waged successfully.
Yearly averages of identical questions asked in 2003 by the Pew Research Center show that around eight in 10 respondents believed the military effort in Iraq was going very or fairly well. The average dropped steadily, to 39%, for the questions asked 2007. The surge began in 2007 and, with its success, attitudes began to pick up once again. In the questions from 2008, 50% said the effort was going well. In Pew's January survey, an even higher proportion, 59%, gave that response.
In another question asked by Pew in the same poll, 61% said the U.S. would definitely or probably succeed in Iraq. More people now report that the military effort is going well in Iraq than those who believe that's the case in Afghanistan.
As the situation in Iraq has improved, public attention to it has declined. In the Pew Research Center's News Interest Index, which asks people about the news stories they are following most closely, the situation in Iraq did not even make the top 15 news events in 2008.
Americans always thought rebuilding Iraq and establishing a stable government there would be more difficult than winning the war. Perhaps because they recognize that democracy building is no cakewalk, some Americans are still pessimistic.
But, again, attitudes have improved. In January 2009, 61% of respondents, up from a low of 42% in 2007, told Pew interviewers that the U.S. would succeed in establishing a stable government in Iraq. But 29% said we would fail.
On more than 70 occasions since March 2003, Gallup has asked whether "in view of developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq," the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops there.
The majority response--to all questions asked since March 2006--is that the war was a mistake, while around four in 10 have consistently said it was not. In Gallup's latest question from January, 56% said it was a mistake, but 43% said it was not.
This negative verdict is unlikely to change soon, but polling data makes it clear that Americans are feeling a lot better about the situation there right now.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.