Summary of Findings

For the first time in a long time, nearly half of Americans express positive opinions about the situation in Iraq. A growing number says the U.S. war effort is going well, while greater percentages also believe the United States is making progress in reducing the number of Iraqi casualties, defeating the insurgents and preventing a civil war in Iraq.

Roughly half of the public (48%) believes the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going very or fairly well. Judgments about the overall situation in Iraq have been improving steadily since the summer. As recently as June, only about a third of Americans (34%) said things were going well in Iraq.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Nov. 20-26 among 1,399 adults, finds that improved public impressions of Iraq are particularly evident when it comes to security-related issues. The number of Americans who say that the United States is making progress in reducing the number of civilian casualties in Iraq has doubled from 21% to 43% since June. The proportion saying that progress has been achieved in preventing terrorists from establishing bases in Iraq is also up substantially, as is the number saying the U.S. is making progress in defeating the insurgents militarily.

However, a rosier view of the military situation in Iraq has not translated into increased support for maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq, greater optimism that the United States will achieve its goals there, or an improvement in President Bush’s approval ratings.

By 54%-41%, more Americans favor bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible rather than keeping troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. The balance of opinion on this measure has not changed significantly all year.

Similarly, Americans remain evenly divided over whether the U.S. is likely to succeed or fail in achieving its goals in Iraq; improved perceptions of the situation in Iraq have not resulted in a changed outlook in this regard. In addition, Bush’s overall job approval now stands at 30%, which is largely unchanged since June and equals the lowest marks of his presidency.

Views of U.S. Military Effort

Public impressions of the U.S. military effort in Iraq are more positive now than at any point since September 2006. At that time, 47% said things were going very or fairly well. A few months earlier, in June, 53% said things were going well, the last time a majority expressed a positive view of conditions in Iraq. Through the following fall and winter, however, Americans grew increasingly downbeat about progress in the war. In February 2007, just 30% said the U.S. military effort was going very or fairly well — the lowest recorded in a Pew survey.

Opinions about the situation in Iraq have slowly turned around in the second half of 2007. In June, barely a third of Americans (34%) saw the situation in Iraq going well. This rose to 41% in September, 44% in October and 48% currently.

While Iraq remains a deeply polarizing issue across party lines, there has been improvement in how both Democrats and Republicans view the war. At the lowest point in February, barely half of Republicans (51%) said things were going well. Today, 74% of Republicans say the same. And while Democrats remain far more skeptical than Republicans, the proportion of Democrats expressing a positive view of the Iraq effort has doubled since February (from 16% to 33%).

Independents’ assessments of how the military effort is going remain far closer to the views of Democrats than of Republicans. Currently, 41% of independents offer a positive assessment, while half say things are not going well. In February, 26% of independents expressed a positive view of the situation in Iraq.

Less Political Progress Seen

In February, about two-thirds of the public (66%) said the U.S. was “losing ground” in preventing civilian casualties, while just 20% saw progress being achieved. Opinions about progress in this area have changed dramatically; in the current survey, 46% say the U.S. is losing ground, compared with 43% who believe the U.S. is making progress.

More Americans also say the United States is making progress in preventing a civil war (up 14 points since February) and defeating the insurgents militarily (up 13 points). However, perceptions of progress in several other areas — including establishing democracy in Iraq, rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure and training Iraq’s forces have shown less change.

Opinions about progress toward specific military and political goals remain deeply divided along partisan lines, with Republicans consistently more likely than Democrats to say progress is being achieved. For instance, while there has been an across-the-board increase in the belief the U.S. is making progress in reducing civilian casualties, about twice as many Republicans as Democrats say the United States is making progress on this (60% of Republicans vs. 28% of Democrats).

Stable Support for Troop Withdrawal

Since February, majorities have consistently supported a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as possible.

Despite the improvement in views of the situation, 54% continue to favor a troop withdrawal while 41% say the United States should keep its troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized.

Attitudes about what to do with U.S. forces have remained very stable across political lines. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) currently favor maintaining troops in Iraq, little change from February (71%). Just 39% of independents and 21% of Democrats want to keep troops in Iraq — again, virtually unchanged from nine months ago.

Iraq in a Word

The belief that the situation in Iraq is getting better also is reflected in the single words that people use to describe the war. The word “improving” is most frequently used to characterize people’s impression of the war; 29 respondents mentioned this word.

For the most part, negative descriptions of the Iraq situation — such as “terrible” (26 mentions), “bad” (24), and “mess” (21) still predominate. However, fewer people use each of these words in characterizing their impressions of the war than did so in September. Individual mentions of the word “improving” have increased over this period, from eight in September to 29 in the current survey.

Most Important Problem

The survey finds that the war in Iraq continues to be viewed as the most important problem facing the nation, though it is not nearly as dominant a concern as it was early this year. Currently, 32% volunteer the war as the biggest problem facing the United States, while 14% mention the economy. In January, mentions of the war outnumbered mentions of the economy by roughly eight-to-one (42% vs. 5%).

While the economy has increased as a concern, so too have energy and gas prices. Currently, 7% name energy and gas prices as the most important national problem, up from just 2% in September and January.

Overall, 31% of the public mentions either the economy, energy or another economic issue (such as unemployment or the budget deficit) as the top national problem. That compares with 40% who cite the Iraq war or another foreign policy issue. In both January and September, foreign policy concerns outpaced economic issues by far wider margins.