56 Percent in Survey Say Iraq War Was a Mistake
Poll Also Finds Slight Majority Favoring Rumsfeld's Exit

By John F. Harris and Christopher Muste
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A04

President Bush heads into his second term amid deep and growing public skepticism about the Iraq war, with a solid majority saying for the first time that the war was a mistake and most people believing that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should lose his job, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

While a slight majority believe the Iraq war contributed to the long-term security of the United States, 70 percent of Americans think these gains have come at an "unacceptable" cost in military casualties. This led 56 percent to conclude that, given the cost, the conflict there was "not worth fighting" -- an eight-point increase from when the same question was asked this summer, and the first time a decisive majority of people have reached this conclusion.

Bush lavished praise on Rumsfeld at a morning news conference yesterday, but the Pentagon chief who soared to international celebrity and widespread admiration after the terrorist attacks three years ago can be glad he answers to an audience of one. Among the public, 35 percent of respondents approved of his job performance and 53 percent disapproved; 52 percent said Bush should give Rumsfeld his walking papers.

Seven weeks since his reelection victory over Democrat John F. Kerry and four weeks before his second inauguration, the poll suggests Bush is in a paradoxical situation -- a triumphant president who remains acutely vulnerable in public opinion on a national security issue that is dominating headlines and could shadow his second term.

While the results are bad for Bush as people look at past decisions -- whether the Iraq war should have been waged in the first place -- the president has more support for his policies over the choices he faces going forward.

A strong majority of Americans, 58 percent, support keeping military forces in Iraq until "civil order is restored," even in the face of continued U.S. causalities. By a slight margin, 48 percent to 44 percent, more voters agreed with Bush's position that the United States is making "significant progress" toward its goal of establishing democracy in Iraq. Yet, by a similar margin, the public believes the United States is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order.

This was just one area where there was considerable ambivalence and even pessimism about the challenges confronting U.S. policy in the coming months.

On the question of whether Iraq is prepared for elections next month -- a topic widely debated among national security experts -- 58 percent of respondents believed the violence-plagued country is not ready. Nonetheless, 60 percent want elections to go forward as scheduled -- even though 54 percent do not expect honest results with a "fair and accurate vote count." Fifty-four percent are not confident elections will produce a stable government that can rule effectively.

Bush waged his reelection campaign heavily on national security, but the polling data reaffirm what similar surveys showed during the campaign: He is winning only half the case.

A full 57 percent disapprove of his handling of Iraq, a number that is seven percentage points higher than a poll taken in September. But the president's core political asset, public confidence in his leadership on terrorism, remains intact, albeit down significantly from even a year ago. Fifty-three percent approve of his record on terrorism, while 43 percent do not. Those numbers were 70 percent and 28 percent a year ago this week.

The public splits down the middle on Bush's overall job performance, with 48 percent approving while 49 percent disapprove, percentages that closely approximate results taken just before the election. By contrast, President Bill Clinton had an approval of 60 percent in a poll taken just before he began his second term.

The Post-ABC results are consistent with other newly released surveys. Time magazine, which this week named Bush its "Person of the Year," found that 49 percent approve of his job performance, little changed from before the election. A Pew Research Center survey, meanwhile, showed that the angry divisions about Bush that marked the 2004 campaign were hardly bridged by the election's end -- nor were the sharply divergent appraisals of reality. By emphatic majorities, Bush voters were upbeat on whether things are going well in Iraq and with the economy, while Kerry voters were negative.

The Post poll also showed such partisan divides on many foreign policy and national security questions. In a potential trouble sign for the White House, Republicans' support for Bush on these questions is lower than the Democratic opposition. And majorities of independents side with the Democrats in their skepticism toward the administration's course.

There are sharp partisan divisions over Rumsfeld, with about two-thirds of Democrats and slight majorities of independents disapproving of his job performance and believing he should be replaced. Smaller majorities of Republicans, about six in 10, approve of Rumsfeld and want him to stay in the job.

There are similar splits on Iraq. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents agree the elections should be held. But more than two-thirds of Democrats and about six in 10 independents believe that Iraq is not ready for elections and that the vote will not be fair and will not produce a stable Iraqi government, in contrast to a majority of Republicans. Opinion is even more sharply divided over the outcome of elections. Seven in 10 Democrats and five in nine independents believe elections will not produce a stable government in Iraq, while more than two-thirds of Republicans believe they will.

A total of 1,004 randomly selected Americans were interviewed Dec. 16 to 19. The margin of sampling error for the results is plus or minus three percentage points.