Libya : voters divided on military action

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:38 AM GMT+0

Less than half the British public backs military action in Libya, according to the first survey conducted since coalition forces started firing missiles at Libya on Saturday night. Support is actually less than it was for Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war eight years ago.

In YouGov’s poll for the Sun, we repeated some questions we asked in March 2003, when British troops joined with America in invading Iraq. On March 20, 2003, 53% supported the invasion; today just 45% think ‘Britain, France, the US and other countries are right to take military action in Libya’. Eight years ago, 39% opposed the invasion; today, 35% oppose military action. The biggest difference is the number who say ‘don’t know’: up from 8% in 2003 to 19% today. The difference is that the prospect of invading Iraq in 2003 had been the subject of far longer, and more intense, debate than the issue of acting against Libya’s Col. Gaddafi.

We shall measure support for military action daily, to monitor the daily ebbs and flows of the public mood. In Iraq, support climbed during the war, reaching 66% support on April 10, as US troops entered central Baghdad. This did not last. The painful aftermath, together with stories of murder, brutality and religious division, caused support to slide. By April 2007, when we last tested public attitudes, just 26% thought the invasion was right, while as many as 60% thought it was wrong.

This carries important lessons for the Libya crisis. Public opinion is liable to fluctuate. Most people tend neither to support military action come what may, nor to condemn it on principle. We tend to take a contingent view: supportive if and when things go well, critical when they go badly. Remember the ‘Falklands factor’: Margaret Thatcher obtained lasting benefit from that war not because she fought it, but because she – or, rather, British troops – won it.

In the long run, then, David Cameron’s reputation will depend on whether the military action succeeds or fails. But what is success? Last week’s United Nations resolution and subsequent ministerial interviews have studiously avoided committing themselves to regime change. They say the key thing is to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi. I doubt that will be enough for most British voters. An extended standoff is unlikely to impress them, however badly Gaddafi’s armed forces have been degraded. For most Britons, success will probably require three things: Gaddafi’s removal, few civilian casualties, and no, or very few, British military deaths.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has reason to worry about the public mood. The Iraq war provoked widespread opposition because it lacked a specific UN mandate, it involved a ground invasion, and Tony Blair was accused of lying about the evidence that Saddam Hussein threatened the West with weapons of mass destruction. This time, military action has been authorised by the UN, no ground troops are involved, and the brutality of Gaddafi’s treatment of civilians is beyond controversy. Even so, public support for Cameron is no higher than it was eight years ago for Blair. Then, 47% thought Blair’s handling of the Iraq crisis was excellent or good, while 50% considered it poor or very poor. Today’s figures for Cameron are 44%-35%. In effect, the country was split down the middle eight years ago, and it is almost split down the middle today.

Even more disturbing is the decline in trust. A week into the Iraq invasion, 62% thought British and American troops were making 'a very great effort' to avoid civilian casualties. Today, the figure is just 30%. Maybe many people are waiting for evidence that civilian casualties are being avoided; if that evidence is not forthcoming, the public mood could turn even more sour.

The loss of trust extends to what political and military leaders say. Eight years ago, 83% trusted Britain’s military to tell the truth about military action, while 16% did not. Today’s figures are 64-26%. A clear majority still trusts military, but it is much less emphatic than it was in 2003.

The figures for the Prime Minister are even worse: By 62-37% voters trusted Blair at the time of the Iraq war. Today, just 43% trust Cameron to tell the truth about Libya while slightly more, 47%, do not.

The worrying thing about these trends is that they probably reflect something that YouGov has found repeatedly in recent years – a decline in trust in people with authority. The Iraq war, and the controversies both at the time and afterwards, contributed to this loss in trust. This matters. Democracies cannot easily take military action without the support, or at least acquiescence, of the wider public. To achieve that support they need to be trusted, for military decisions generally have to be taken swiftly and often on the basis of secret information. The absence of trust is therefore a grave handicap.

So far, hostility to the actions against Gaddafi is less intense than that against Saddam. But the doubts are just as widespread, and trust these days is in far shorter supply. Iraq still casts a long shadow over British attitudes to politics and war. One of the challenges facing Cameron, and other leaders, is so to lead military action in Libya, that voters start once again to trust their leaders at such perilous times.