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Not Exactly 'A Day At The Beach'

Written by analyst Anthony Salvanto, CBS News' Manager Of Surveys.



Sen. John McCain set the political world buzzing last week by knocking the Bush administration for its statements on Iraq, saying they the President and his underlings had led the public to believe the war would be "some kind of day at the beach." Many Americans agree with the way McCain characterized the administration's war assessments: A majority has often said they think the President makes Iraq sound like it's going better than it really is.

McCain's sense that there's disillusionment among the public seems accurate, even if the administration's hand in causing that is less certain.

Optimism was certainly widespread in the early part of the war — and for many, the post-Saddam struggle has opened a disappointing gap between what they'd expected and what they've seen.

Just before the war started in 2003, a CBS News poll found four in 10 Americans thought the action would be a "fairly quick and successful effort." That sizeable, optimistic group included a majority of Republicans, a third of Democrats and 40 percent of Independents. (In the case of the latter two groups, a lot of support came along with that sunny outlook. Unlike today, most Democrats and Independents back then backed the war.)

Success in the opening weeks of the campaign seemed to prompt hope for a short, easy war. Just after Baghdad fell, three-quarters of Americans predicted the troops would face nothing more than "minor skirmishes" from then on — including one-quarter who thought the military action would be "essentially over" in the following weeks.

It wasn't, of course — but the capture of Saddam in December 2003 looked to many like the beginning of the end: Half the nation anticipated that the troops would be out in two years or less. By the spring of 2004, though, hope for a two-year timeline had faded, sliding from 49 percent to 30 percent. The expectation that the war would go on longer than five years jumped from 12 percent to 26 percent.

In 2005, Americans apparently were not swayed when Vice President Dick Cheney asserted in the spring that the insurgency was in its "last throes." By the fall, the number who thought the war would end quickly had actually dipped some more. Today, more Americans than ever envision the United States in Iraq for the long haul: The number who see the end farther than five years off has climbed to 31 percent — the highest ever.

To many, expectations of a longer war have been associated with the feeling that things aren't going well. For instance, in the poll taken one year into the conflict, those who figured the timeline was longer than five years were also the most likely to say that things were going badly for the United States. The same is true today.

One shining example of public disappointment centers on how people now differentiate the pre- and post-Saddam phases of the war — that is, the parts before and after "Mission Accomplished." Looking back now, many think the United States ought to have ended the war right after Saddam fell. For them, it seems the mission really was accomplished three years ago.

When a CBS News poll asked Americans this summer to choose which course of action the United States should have taken with regard to Iraq — stayed out altogether; or simply ousted Saddam and then left immediately; or ousted Saddam and then stayed to try to rebuild, as it actually has done — it found 25 percent of Americans wish the United States had gotten Saddam and gotten out; they would separate the pre- and post-Saddam missions, supporting the first, but not the second. (Thirty-nine percent back both removing Saddam and then rebuilding, and another 35 percent wish the United States had never gotten involved at all.)

Today, with only a minority of the nation supporting the war, this "Mission Accomplished" group is a key reason why. When these Americans were also asked to give their up-or-down view of the overall war, the troubles they've seen post-Saddam outweigh their happiness about ousting him. Most of them — 56 percent — give the whole war the thumbs down. Just 34% of them now say the war was the right thing.

One reason is that this group has been surprised about how long the war has lasted. In polling conducted this spring, the "Mission Accomplished" Americans were by far the most astounded by the war's duration: An overwhelming 82 percent said they had not thought the war would last as long as it has. Far fewer of those who think the United States should have stayed out, or those who back the whole effort, expressed similar surprise.

McCain is not the only one of the war's original supporters looking for ways to connect with a public that once gave majority backing to the war but doesn't anymore. There is disillusionment behind that drop-off. A lot of people thought Iraq would take a lot less time than it has — and for many Americans, the years of post-Saddam rebuilding have been both unwelcome and unexpected.

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