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Archive for Thursday, February 27, 2003

Americans ambivalent about war

February 27, 2003

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— Poll after poll shows a large majority of Americans support military action against Saddam Hussein. But most are in no hurry, preferring to wait for more weapons inspections, more diplomacy, more allies standing by the United States.

Surveys consistently show the U.S. public wants U.N. approval for war on Iraq, even though in at least one recent poll people expressed little confidence in the United Nations.

Beneath the desire to back President Bush -- and the belief Saddam is a menace -- the polls track an undercurrent of concern about the possibility of sending in U.S. troops while other nations are pressing for alternatives.

"We can't be putting ourselves as the Big Bad Wolf out there," ex-Marine Dhikir Maolud said Wednesday, "because it's going to come back to us."

Maolud, a 63-year-old Muslim who lives in Atlanta, wishes the Iraqi leader had been ousted during the Persian Gulf War. But he thinks it is vital to win U.N. support before going after him again.

In Traverse City, Mich., Mark Wilkes felt the same.

"I'd like to see it play out with the inspectors," said Wilkes, 48. "And I don't think we should stand alone."

People are looking to the United Nations for reassurance, not necessarily out of esteem for the world body, but because they find the accusations of Iraqi weapons violations too complicated to sort out for themselves, pollster Warren Mitofsky said.

"They're looking for an authoritative voice to tell them that the information is there to justify an attack," Mitofsky said. "They're willing to support the president, but they'd like to be a little more convinced."

Paul Verduin prays for peace with other church leaders from
Britain, France, Germany and the United States at the United
Methodist Church in Washington. The prayer session was Wednesday.

Paul Verduin prays for peace with other church leaders from Britain, France, Germany and the United States at the United Methodist Church in Washington. The prayer session was Wednesday.

This time around is a sharp contrast from the Gulf War, when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait provided a clear rationale and greater world support.

But Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said most Americans were not following the details of the U.N. debate. It is enough that "they've known about Saddam Hussein for a decade, and they think he's a thug," she said.

Bowman sees the seeming hesitancy in the polls as a reflection of the country's reluctance to risk soldiers' lives and of a tradition of U.S. diplomacy.

"Americans have always preferred to act with our allies," she said. "Americans always value talk, in this case giving the inspectors more time."

Polls consistently find about two-thirds of the public favors military action against Iraq. That does not necessarily mean right away, however.

For example, in a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, more than 56 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to see the United States win over more of the U.N. Security Council's members before attacking, even if that takes additional time.

Thirty-nine percent want to move quickly against Iraq even if that means acting without the Security Council's support, according to the ABC News-Post poll. Republicans and men are more likely to favor action sooner rather than later.

As he waited for a fare outside a downtown Pittsburgh hotel, taxi driver George Thornton said the United States should move fast because Iraq was willing to assist terrorists.

"It is only something that is going to come back and haunt us again and again," said Thornton, 45, who worries that his 12-year-old son may someday face a return of the draft.

All this may be moot if a military conflict begins because Americans traditionally rally around the president and armed forces at a time of war. Also, fear of terrorism might amplify those feelings.

Still, Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist specializing in public opinion, said today's uneasiness could resurface if a conflict goes badly for the United States.

"There is an undercurrent of ambivalence and suspicion that might come into play," he said, "depending on how the war played out."

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