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THE TIMES POLL : Americans Support Bush but Are Split on Gulf Goals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Americans strongly back President Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf, they are deeply divided over what ultimately must happen for the United States to claim victory there, The Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Thus, ordinary citizens, to a large degree, are reflecting the division of Bush’s own top advisers as the President grapples with the delicate task of setting specific goals for the United States’ massive military buildup in the gulf region.

Roughly one-fourth of Americans surveyed by The Times Poll think Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must be overthrown before the United States can claim victory and withdraw its troops. An equal number said victory would mean “forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait.” But nearly that many people also asserted that it would be victory enough if the Iraqis merely “released all the American hostages unharmed.”

Public attitudes are important to Bush because the long-term objectives that he sets must enjoy widespread citizen support in order for his gulf policy to be politically sustainable.

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To date, Bush’s declared objectives are to protect Saudi Arabia against a potential attack by Iraqi forces, to pressure Iraq into pulling out of Kuwait and releasing all foreign hostages and to restore Kuwait’s ousted emir to power.

People interviewed by The Times Poll, however, believe U.S. troops were sent to Saudi Arabia mainly to protect U.S. oil supplies and to show that aggression does not pay--not to defend that kingdom or to restore Kuwait’s government. The Times Poll conducted telephone interviews with 1,206 American adults on Wednesday. The survey, supervised by Assistant Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, represented a randomly selected cross-section of the American populace and had an error margin of four percentage points in either direction.

In the survey, Bush received one of the highest job ratings he has ever recorded in a poll by The Times. Three-fourths of those interviewed approved of the way he is “handling his job as President.” Similarly, 73% approved of the way Bush “is handling the Iraq situation.”

Nearly two-thirds--64%--endorsed Bush’s decision to send troops to the Persian Gulf. Men approved of the decision significantly more (73%) than women (56%). Republicans also approved more (77%) than Democrats (54%). And blacks leaned toward disapproval.

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Whether they approve or disapprove of the troop deployment, people basically figure the action was taken mainly to “protect our oil supplies” and “to show that countries cannot get away with aggression,” the poll found.

But the perception of what would constitute a U.S. victory in the gulf is substantially shaped by a person’s attitude toward the troop commitments in the first place, interviews showed.

Most people who approved of sending troops are split between those who want Hussein overthrown and those who just want the Iraqi leader to withdraw from Kuwait. On the other hand, people who opposed sending troops have a much less demanding standard for victory: Their main goal simply is the release of American hostages unharmed.

The public’s support for U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf increases sharply with education, according to the survey. For example, the commitment of troops was supported by only 45% of high school dropouts but by 61% of those who received a diploma. And among people who went to college, backing for the troop deployment rose to 72%.

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“This is the historic pattern,” said The Times’ political analyst, William Schneider. “The well-educated understand our role in the world and support it. The poorly educated think we should take care of our problems here at home first . . .

“Most Americans support our intervention but for different reasons: some for nationalist reasons, to protect our oil supplies; others for internationalist reasons, to punish aggression. Eventually, those objectives could become controversial, but they’re not yet.”

Half the people interviewed thought it is “likely” this situation could “bog down and become another Vietnam.” Women particularly worried about this, but most men did not.

Nearly half of those polled also said they expect U.S. troops to remain in the Middle East for at least six months. One-quarter figured they would stay at least a year.

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And 59% said they would support going to war with Iraq under certain circumstances, principally if U.S. hostages are harmed or Saudi Arabia is invaded. But only 12% advocated going to war immediately. Roughly one-third did not want to get into a war with Iraq under any circumstances.

Most people (58%) said they would oppose invading Iraq if “it might place the hostages’ lives in danger.” And 61% asserted that it is not “worth risking the lives of American soldiers in order to protect our oil supplies.”

But in what Schneider called “the Hitler analogy,” the majority (53%) said it would be worth risking the lives of U.S. troops “to demonstrate that countries should not get away with aggression.”

Two-thirds felt that “the U.S. action in the Middle East is morally justified.”

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The survey found, moreover, that people’s attitudes toward the U.S. action were not significantly swayed by whether a family member was in the military.

The national poll, however, did highlight a significant difference between Americans as a whole and Californians on one controversial issue: offshore oil drilling. Asked how they felt about offshore drilling “with the situation in the Middle East jeopardizing world oil supplies,” 59% of those interviewed across the nation said they approve of it. But in a recent survey of Californians by The Times Poll, only 37% favored offshore drilling.

The national survey also found that the public clamor for cuts in defense spending has been greatly muted by the Persian Gulf crisis. In this survey, 28% said the federal government “should spend less for national defense.” In a similar survey last December, 46% wanted to spend less on the military. In the latest poll, 18% advocated spending more for defense, compared to only 10% last December.

TIMES POLL

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Interviewed 1,206 respondents, nationally. Q: Main reason why American troops have been sent to the Mideast? Protect oil interest: 50% Don’t want countries to get away with aggression: 45% Protect lives of Americans: 28% Defend Saudi Arabia: 13% Restore legitimate government of Kuwait: 11% Something else: 4% Don’t know: 7% What would you consider a victory for the U.S. in the Middle East crisis? Force Iraqis out of Kuwait: 24% Overthrow government of Saddam Hussein: 24% Release American hostages unharmed: 23% Prevent Saudi Arabia from being attacked: 5% All of the above: 13% Something else: 1% Don’t know: 10% Source: L.A. Times Poll


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