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War Polling: It’s Not So Cut and Dry

After his interview with Saddam Hussein, CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported that Hussein asked him many questions “primarily about American public opinion.” The Iraqi leader isn’t alone in wanting to know how much support the president has for going to war. [IMGCAP(1)]

Part of the difficulty in answering the question comes from changes in polling itself. Between 1965 and 1975, pollsters asked about 1,400 questions about the Vietnam War. In the month after Sept. 11, 2001, pollsters asked about 1,000 questions about that event alone. The hyperactive competitive polling business illuminates some areas, but sows confusion when the survey instrument is pushed too far. Current polls about Iraq are better understood in broader terms. Here’s a snapshot of some of the issues pertaining to public opinion:

• Americans give their presidents substantial latitude in foreign policy once a basic level of trust has been established. President Bush — like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton before him — had no foreign policy experience, and the public initially withheld judgment. Doubts about Carter’s stewardship grew during his presidency. The belief that Reagan was trigger-happy took about two years to subside in polls — in large parts of Europe, it never did. Clinton, despite considerable activity, never established a strong foreign policy profile, and his ratings trailed his overall ratings.

Before Sept. 11, Bush had not earned public trust on foreign policy, but the magnitude of the attacks, his personal response and the response of his team gave him credibility almost overnight. Seventeen months later, the president still receives high marks on the war against terrorism.

The question now is “Is Iraq different?” Answering that question requires understanding how Americans think about a decision to go to war.

• Americans are always reluctant to put troops in harm’s way. The late Everett Ladd, an authority on polls, argued in 1983 that “there has been no instance prior to the actual commitment of troops where a majority of the populace favored such a step.” Today, on the broadest questions about invading Iraq, all major polls show majority support. In a late- February Gallup, CNN and USA Today poll, 59 percent supported using ground troops to remove Hussein from power, while 37 percent were opposed.

• Confidence in presidential leadership is essential, but so, too, is confidence in the military. A new Harris Interactive poll says leaders of the military enjoy a far higher level of confidence than leaders of any other institution. Both before and since Sept. 11, Secretary of State Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been the most popular person in this administration.

• Since World War II, Americans have always preferred to act with our allies, when possible. They know it is not always possible. Today, support for moving against Iraq drops if our allies don’t support us or if the United Nations won’t go along. But these “what if” hypothetical questions may not be a reliable guide if the president decides to act.

• Americans value talk. From the darkest days of the Cold War on, poll after poll has shown that Americans want to keep communications open with our enemies. To avoid war, Americans favor diplomacy, negotiation and, up to a point, giving inspectors more time. This explains why a recent ABC News and Washington Post poll showed 56 percent of respondents willing to wait in order to get U.N. backing, while 63 percent in another question in the poll support military action to remove Hussein.

• If history is a guide, once action starts, Americans will rally around their president. In a Jan. 23-25 Gallup, CNN and USA Today poll, 72 percent (including 45 percent who favor an invasion and 27 percent who are opposed) said they would support the president’s decision to invade.

• Polls can’t tell us how strong anti-war sentiment is. In November 1990, 59 percent told ABC News and Washington Post pollsters they approved of then-President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the situation caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and 36 percent disapproved. The pollster followed up with a question for those who disapproved: “Is that because you think he’s moving too quickly against Iraq, or because you think he’s moving too slowly against Iraq?” Forty-four percent in 1990 said he was moving too slowly, 37 percent too quickly. No pollster has asked that question this year, although several have asked whether the United States is moving too quickly, with different results depending on how questions are worded. It’s hardly surprising that many have reservations about going to war. Estimating the core anti-war group is much harder.

John Mueller, whose “War, Presidents and Public Opinion” is a standard reference, argues that support for Vietnam declined as war dragged on and casualties mounted. More recently, Steve Kull and Clay Ramsay examined attitudes toward military fatalities in Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The majority of Americans responded not “by wanting to withdraw,” they say, but by wanting “to respond assertively.” The critical question is not casualties or vital interests, but “whether the operation is perceived as likely to succeed.”

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger outlined six tests to be applied before sending American soldiers to war. One involved public opinion. “Before the United States commits combat forces abroad,” he said, “there must be some reasonable assurance that we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives. … We cannot fight a battle with Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas.” Shortly thereafter Secretary of State George Shultz countered: “There is no such thing as guaranteed public support in advance.” He reminded his audience that great powers must bear the responsibility for the consequences of inaction as well as action. Americans know this, but their instinctive caution about going to war is surely understandable. Americans never run to a fight. Nor do they run from one.