Immediately following President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2002, in which he branded Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as constituting an “Axis of Evil,” Gallup surveyed Americans’ favorability toward various countries (it has done so annually since 2000). Not surprisingly, Americans’ perceptions of these countries in early February 2002 reflected the president’s disposition: Iran’s favorability was 11%/84%; Iraq’s was 6%/88%; and North Korea’s was comparatively better off at 23%/65%. Fifteen years later, and perhaps not surprisingly, Americans’ perceptions of these countries remain largely negative.
The chart below averages the favorability and unfavorability ratings of each of these countries over three periods: the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. Note: Gallup does not have image data for North Korea prior to 2000.
Perhaps due to America’s commitment to it paid in blood, sweat, and tears, Iraq has shown modest improvement. During Operation Desert Storm, Iraq’s image had collapsed to just 3% favorable (February 1991 read). By February 2005, the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Americans’ view of Iraq had improved considerably, jumping to 29%/66%. From there it has weakened, and today, just 19% of Americans have a favorable view of Iraq, while 79% have an unfavorable view. Still, of these three countries, Iraq “boasts” the best image rating as of February 2017, Gallup’s most recent data. Its average favorability ratings per decade, as demonstrated in the chart, have shown the most improvement.
Iran has long hovered toward the bottom of the list, with little improvement over the years. Iran’s best read came in February 2004, with 17% of Americans holding a favorable view of the Islamic Republic; its worst came in 1989, when just 5% of Americans had a favorable view. The Obama administration’s trumpeted deal with Iran has done little to improve the country’s perception: as of February 2017, just 12% of Americans have a favorable view of the country, and its average favorability over time has remained near-constant.
The saber-rattling hermit kingdom of North Korea looms largely in American life today with its bellicose threats of unleashing nuclear doom upon the United States. This behavior belies the relatively favorable view Americans had of the country prior to its classification as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” In February 2001, nearly one-third (31%) of Americans had a favorable view of North Korea, while 59% had an unfavorable view. Its image tumbled after Bush’s address to 23%/65% and never recovered; since then its favorability has never surpassed 15%, and as of February 2017, just 11% of Americans have a favorable view of the country. Notably, 58% have a very unfavorable view of North Korea – much higher than its counterparts, Iraq (30%) and Iran (39%). Of course, it is likely that these numbers could be even worse today given the increasing hostility shown by North Korea over the last few weeks.
It’s not easy being evil, but these three countries do pretty well at it. The American public is not amused.