“And it is an old country, France, from an old continent like mine, Europe, which tells you this today”: these words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Dominique de Villepin, resonate still in the chamber of the UN Security Council. On that day, February 14, 2003, France vetoed Colin Powell’s plan to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with UN approval. The American Secretary of State himself had brandished ten days earlier the last proof, presented as irrefutable, of the dangerousness of the Iraqi regime. This small vial filled with anthrax was to end up convincing public opinion of the merits of this war.
► How did George W. Bush prepare American opinion for war?
A survey by the Pew Research Center, an American center for social science research, published on March 14, looks back through the study and synthesis of opinion polls from 2001 to 2019, on this quest of the Bush administration aimed at obtaining by all means the anointing of American public opinion to intervene in Iraq. From January 2002, shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the American president stands out with a very offensive speech with regard to Iraq which would be the pivot of an “axis of evil” plotting against America.
This speech, which was widely followed by the Americans, was the cornerstone of the rhetoric of disinformation on the need to attack Iraq on March 20, 2003. In fact, following this speech, 73% of citizens polled in the weeks preceding were in favor of military action in Iraq – including 56% even if it involves thousands of casualties, recalls the Pew Research Center. Throughout 2002, the media operations of Homeland Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney, then vice-president, supported the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
► How is American opinion changing with regard to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?
In October 2002, 79% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein is in the process of obtaining or already possesses weapons of mass destruction. George W. Bush will also continue to manipulate public opinion by explaining this same autumn of 2002 that Iraq and Al-Qaeda share a common enemy: the United States. The US administration has never linked Iraq to the planning or execution of the attacks of September 11, 2001, although 66% of those polled were convinced of this at the time.
In 2003, the majority of Americans of all political persuasions supported the American attack. On the Republican side, 83% of supporters are for going to war against a smaller majority, 56%, of Democrats. Colin Powell’s speech on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the UN convinced. Even among those who opposed the war, 39% said they found the Secretary of State persuasive.
► How did the Bush administration lose the fight for public opinion?
During the first weeks of the conflict, 90% of Americans supported the intervention of the American army in Iraq. On April 9, 2003, the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad was torn down. On May 1, George W. Bush speaks on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. From this event, the Americans will support the offensive less and less: they are 73% in May, then 60% at the end of the summer. The abuses committed by American soldiers in the prison of Abu Ghraib are passing confidence in the war, for the first time, below 50%.
When George W. Bush, re-elected in 2004, wanted to send 20,000 more soldiers to Iraq, two-thirds of the population opposed it. The stubbornness of the American president to intensify his war makes him fall in public opinion. Moreover, the question of American intervention is deeply polarizing the population between Democrats and Republicans. At the end of 2007, a majority of respondents, approximately 54%, expressed support for the withdrawal of troops.
► An overall positive assessment?
You have to know how to end a war. On December 15, 2011, this is essentially what President Barack Obama said when he announced that the American army was withdrawing from Iraq. This decision is supported by three-quarters of Americans, including half of Republicans. After this withdrawal, 56% of those polled concluded that the war had been “overall successful”.
Hindsight puts hot opinions into perspective. In 2018, only 39% said that the war was a success, compared to 53% who considered that the United States had not achieved its objectives. The following year, they were 62% to declare that the war was not worth it.
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