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THE TIMES POLL : Americans Strongly Back Bush on Panama Invasion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans strongly support the massive U.S. invasion of Panama and agree with President Bush that “it’s been worth it” despite the loss of American lives, The Times Poll found Thursday.

If Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega manages to escape capture, however, this enthusiasm could cool some. And the public does not believe the invasion has made life any safer for the 35,000 Americans in Panama, the survey showed.

Two reasons cited by Bush for unleashing the largest U.S. invasion force since the Vietnam war were “to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States,” where he is wanted on drug-trafficking charges, and “to safeguard the lives of American citizens.”

But Americans think the invasion has accomplished two other goals enunciated by Bush: “To defend democracy” and to protect U.S. rights under the Panama Canal Treaties.

The Times Poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, interviewed 700 adult Americans by telephone Thursday afternoon and night. The margin of error for a survey this size is five percentage points in either direction.

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“There is a tendency for Americans to rally ‘round the flag whenever U.S. armed forces are first sent into battle,” pollster Lewis noted. “But if the situation drags on, the public could easily become more critical.

“What we are measuring now is mostly first impressions. A number of factors will have a lot to do with the final public attitude--things like how quickly Noriega is captured, the extent of American casualties, the reaction of other Latin American governments and how soon American troops can pull out.”

But on the second day of the invasion by more than 20,000 U.S. Marines, paratroopers, infantrymen, sailors and airmen, American citizens interviewed by The Times Poll were supporting the attack by a ratio of more than 5 to 1, with 77% approving and only 15% disapproving. In fact, 56% approved “strongly.”

Politically for Bush, coming on the heels of a generally successful summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the invasion seems to have increased his popularity. Eighty percent now approve of how the President is “handling his job,” compared to 66% during a pre-summit survey by The Times Poll and just 59% last March.

In Thursday’s poll, two-thirds of those interviewed agreed with Bush’s statement at a press conference a few hours earlier that the invasion had “been worth it” despite the loss of American lives. As of late Thursday, the Pentagon was reporting U.S. combat casualties of 21 dead, 208 wounded and four missing.

But nearly a third of the people surveyed said they will consider the invasion to be “less successful” if Noriega is not captured. On Thursday, Bush vowed to keep U.S. troops hunting for Noriega “as long as it takes.” And in the survey, people on the average said they expect that it will be nine months before American forces can be withdrawn.

Roughly a third of the people also worried that U.S. troops could get “bogged down” in Panama as they did a generation ago in Vietnam, although nearly two-thirds thought this to be unlikely.

Underscoring their concern for the safety of possible American hostages in Panama, half of those surveyed feared that the invasion had “further jeopardized” U.S. citizens living there. Only 37% felt that American lives had been made “more secure.”

But half believed that the attack had resulted in a more secure Panama Canal. Less than one-third thought it was now in further jeopardy. Only about 1 in 6 advocated scrapping the Panama Canal Treaties, which call for turning over the canal and U.S. military bases to Panamanian control on Dec. 31, 1999.

Roughly 6 in 10 people said the U.S. military operation “has brought democracy closer to realization in Panama,” where a new government was sworn in as the invasion began.

Emphasizing their approval of the attack, a majority of people considered it to be “morally justified.” And two-thirds asserted that the United States had “made every effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement” before invading.


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