It’s been 15 years since President George W. Bush told the public in a nighttime address that the United States had begun a massive invasion of Iraq. That would seem to be plenty of time for a country that was led into war under false pretenses to reconsider a foreign policy disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of people and destabilized an entire region of the world.
Yet public opinion polls pegged to the anniversary contain depressing news about just how many people still believe the Iraq War was a good idea. A Pew Research survey released Monday suggests that only 48 percent of Americans think military force was the wrong decision, while a stunning 43 percent hold onto the belief that the war was a good thing. Respondents were split along partisan lines:
A similar HuffPost/YouGov poll added a bit more nuance to the question: While about half of respondents said the US shouldn’t have sent troops in, about 24 percent still said it was the right decision, while 26 percent remain “unsure,” despite all the evidence in front of them. Almost a quarter of respondents told the pollsters that the military action was at least a partial success. Notice the breakdown on this question among respondents who identified as Republican:
Where to begin with these findings? Maybe they reflect a human unwillingness to admit a mistake made out of fear and hatred. Just a third of HuffPost/YouGov respondents said they supported the Iraq War at the time, which suggests either a sizable polling error or a dishonest rewrite of history. The latter is the safe bet.
There’s also partisanship. A CNN/ORC poll out this year put Bush’s approval rating among the GOP at 76 percent, a figure that defies belief for a president whose foreign policy caused unimaginable human suffering and left the U.S. with a multi-trillion dollar price tag.
Then there’s the media, which infamously helped sell the false “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction. The confusion over what happened in Iraq is much more understandable given that the same cast of characters who heralded it at the time remain fixtures at prestigious outlets. Conservative writers like Bill Kristol and David Frum have rehabilitated their images as #resistance leaders. Thomas “Suck On This” Friedman continues gushing about Middle Eastern strongmen for The New York Times. Jeffrey Goldberg edits The Atlantic. Max Boot, who even argued in 2013 against repenting for his misguided Iraq stance, has a new column in The Washington Post. I won’t even get into cable. The list goes on.
Bush himself has been recast as a cuddly retiree discovering his “inner Rembrandt” and painting his way to atonement. And many Democrats, stunned into amnesia by the Trump presidency, have even found themselves misremembering his record. With so many influential voices displaying a canny ability to rationalize what led them into a catastrophic failure of judgment, it’s no surprise that a sizable portion of the American public has followed suit.