Buoyed by success on the battlefield, most Americans now express support for an expansive U.S. role in the Middle East, with a clear majority backing the war in Iraq and half endorsing military action against Iran if it continues to develop nuclear weapons, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.
The survey found Americans experiencing the traditional rally-around-the-flag effect common when troops are first sent into battle: optimism about the country's direction and support for President Bush both soared.
More than three-fourths of Americans -- including two-thirds of liberals and 70% of Democrats -- now say they support the decision to go to war. And more than four-fifths of these war supporters say they still will back the military action even if allied forces don't find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Bush's overall job approval rating jumped to 68%, the highest level since last summer, and three-fourths of those polled said they trust him to make the right decisions on Iraq.
"I had my own reservations about [the war] ... but my feeling is at least I can trust that this president is trying to do the right thing for the country," said Christopher Hart, an author in Westport, Conn., who responded to the survey. "This man fully believes in what he does and I do not believe he is doing this for any reason other than that he is convinced it is in our best interest."
The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 745 adults Wednesday and Thursday; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Despite such strong endorsements, the poll did contain warning signs for Bush.
His approval rating didn't approach the 85% peak reached by his father, President George H.W. Bush, in Times polls during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
At the same time, most Americans said they wanted the United Nations to play a central role in reconstructing postwar Iraq, while the administration appears to be focused on maximizing U.S. control of the process.
Tax Cut Loses Favor
On the domestic front, a 2-to-1 majority said that, because of the war, the country cannot afford even the stripped-down, $350-billion version of Bush's proposed tax cut that the Senate recently approved.
And though the surge of wartime optimism boosted immediate assessments of the economy, interviews with respondents showed substantial concern about the nation's economic health -- and whether Bush has the right cure.
"I wish he would pay attention to the economy," said David Loveland, a stockbroker in Charleston, S.C. "It appears his focus is on a lot of different things besides the economy."
Overall, the poll painted a powerful picture of traditional wartime consolidation behind the commander in chief. Yet interviews with respondents showed that Americans hold complex, and in many instances ambivalent, views about the war's potential long-term effect.
By 62% to 33%, those polled said the war is likely to make the world a safer place; 52% believe it will help stabilize the Middle East, while 21% believe it will seed more instability. Just under 20% think it's unlikely to have much effect either way.
Those optimistic about the war's long-term effect believe that removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could serve as both deterrent and inspiration. "Getting a foothold in creating a stable, pro-Western and hopefully democratic regime in Iraq, combined with what's going on in Afghanistan, can be a wellspring for good things to happen," Hart said.
But Americans are split almost exactly in half when asked whether the war will increase or diminish the threat of terrorism. Still, that's a significant improvement from the two-thirds who predicted more terror in a Times poll in December.
Ray Sluss, a retired textbook executive from Chicago, may typify the shifting attitudes. He sees the danger of new attacks, but still believes the greater threat may have been allowing Hussein to remain in power.
The war, he said, probably will produce "anger and upset in the Muslim world." But he added, "In this world you have to take risks, and I think it was a reasonable risk."
To combat the danger of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Americans appear willing to accept further risks. Only 17% of those polled said the United States should not send peacekeepers to Iraq after the war ends; 43% said it should commit troops for as long as needed; and 13% said troops should remain in place at least a year.
And substantial portions of the public are willing to consider military action against other potential threats in the area. "I just think that the Middle East itself will never fall into a peaceful solution unless some of the people who are supporting terror are finally rooted out," said Don Seward, who runs a small real estate business in Western Springs, Ill.
Americans are divided almost in half when asked whether the United States should take military action against Syria, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accused of providing Iraq with military supplies. Syria has denied the accusation. But 42% said the United States should take action if Syria, in fact, provides aid to Iraq, while 46% said no.
More Americans take a hard line on Iran, which recently disclosed an advanced program to develop the enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.
Exactly half said the United States should take military action against Iran if it continues to move toward nuclear-weapon development; 36% disagreed. Perhaps surprisingly, women are slightly more supportive of such action than men.
Bush may face more resistance on another front. Just as most Americans preferred U.N. backing for the war with Iraq, 50% said the international body "should lead the reconstruction effort in Iraq," while 29% said the United States should take the principal role.
Robert Richardson, a respiratory therapist in Philadelphia, expressed a common fear among poll respondents when he said that a U.S.-directed reconstruction "will be perceived as colonialist. It is definitely not going to sit well with the neighboring countries." Yet despite such concerns, both the poll and the interviews make it clear that many who had initially resisted the war have come to see it as unavoidable.
"People seem to think this was just something President Bush had in his craw," said John McDonald, an electronics technician in Columbus, Ohio. "That might have been part of it; but it wasn't the whole story. I think the world was at the end of its rope with Saddam Hussein."
Most of those polled said Bush gave Iraq enough of a chance to avoid war, though partisan divisions persist on that question. Nearly three-fourths said Bush had let the U.N. inspection process run long enough. And, though Democrats were more closely divided, two-thirds of all those polled said they believed he gave diplomacy enough time to work before sending in troops.
"I don't think it would have helped to have waited longer," Sluss said. "I'm not a jumping-up-and-down enthusiast about the war, but on balance he made the right decision."
Such assessments have tilted the country sharply in Bush's direction on the decision to attack. In a February Times poll, 57% of those surveyed said they would support an invasion of Iraq, while 38% opposed it; in the new poll, Americans backed the war 77% to 21%.
Almost three-quarters praised Bush's handling of the war, 56% said he has done a good or excellent job of explaining the rationale for it and 70% say the United States has the moral authority to have attacked Iraq.
"I think it's the right thing to do," said Raquel Purisma, a clerk in Chicago. "If we don't do something first, they are going to do something to us."
Those still critical of the war focused on the risk that the decision to attack without U.N. authorization might isolate the United States diplomatically. "I think it hurts our credibility ... our reputation and the ability of Americans to effectively work to resolve other issues facing us, such as Iran or North Korea," Loveland said. "We've shown we can go it alone on this and the world may ask us to continue to go it alone on various things, knowing that we will not pursue diplomacy to the furthest end."
Riding the Momentum
The poll, taken during a period of rapid allied gains in recent days, found Americans largely satisfied with the pace of progress. Just 14% said the war wasn't going as well as they expected, while 27% said it was exceeding their expectations and 56% said it was unfolding about as they had anticipated.
Just 6% of those polled said they supported the use of force before the war began but switched because of U.S. casualties; 16% said they had switched from opposition to support since the shooting started.
Only one-fifth said they believed the Bush administration had deliberately understated the risks of the war to rally public support. Two-fifths said it had offered an accurate preview, while one-third said the administration had honestly believed the war would unfold with less difficulty.
In any case, most of those surveyed said they were willing to accept a lengthy commitment to oust Hussein. Among those backing the war, 60% said they would support it even if it took longer than a year, while 11% said they would back the war for up to a year. Just 17% of supporters said they would back the war for less than a year.
Few, though, expect it to run that long. About three-fifths expect the fighting to be over in six months. Fewer than one in six think it will take more than a year.
Those polled also indicated a willingness to accept relatively substantial U.S. casualties. Just 17% of war supporters said they would back it only if 500 or fewer U.S. troops are killed; 52% said they would continue to support the war even if the United States suffered more than 1,000 casualties.
Americans hold an unambiguous definition of victory: deposing Hussein. Asked whether they would consider the war a success if Iraq's suspected cache of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed but Hussein remained in power, just 11% said yes, while 84% said no.
Just 39% said the war would be a success if Hussein goes into exile at its end. Conversely, 85% said they would consider the war successful if Hussein is captured or killed.
Nearly eight in 10 Americans now accept the Bush administration's contention -- disputed by some experts -- that Hussein has "close ties" to Al Qaeda (even 70% of Democrats agree). And 60% of Americans say they believe Hussein bears at least some responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- a charge even the administration hasn't levied against him.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Views on Bush and the war
War and Bush
Q: President Bush's job approval rating:
*--* Before the war Now (Early Feb.) Approve 68% 56% Disapprove 28 39
Q: Does the U.S. have the moral authority to take military action against Iraq, or not?
Yes -- 70%
No -- 23%
Don't know -- 7%
Q: Do you trust President Bush and his advisors to make the right decision about the hand-ling of military action against Iraq?
Trust them -- 75%
Don't trust them -- 20%
Don't know -- 5%
Q: Will U.S. military action against Iraq make the world a safer place, or not?
Safer -- 62%
Not safer -- 33%
Don't know -- 5%
Q: Do you support or oppose the Bush administration's decision to take military action against Iraq at this time?
Q: Top four reasons given by those who support the decision to take military action against Iraq (Accepted up to two replies):
Disarm Saddam Hussein -- 23%
Liberate Iraqi people -- 15%
Remove threat to U.S. -- 14%
Hussein violated U.N. resolutions -- 12%
Q: Top five reasons given by those who oppose the decision to take military action against Iraq (Accepted up to two replies):
Bush doing this for personal/political reasons -- 18%
U.S. has no business attacking Iraq -- 17%
Iraqi civilian casualties -- 13%
Want peaceful solution -- 12%
World/U.N. opposes it -- 12%
War and military forces
Q: Are the briefings by the Pentagon and Central Command giving an accurate portrayal of the progress of the war, or are they overstating or understating the progress being made by U.S. troops?
Accurate -- 58%
Overstating -- 18%
Understating -- 13%
Don't know -- 11%
Q: Would you say that military action against Iraq has had a successful outcome if at the end of it Saddam Hussein:
Is still in power, but Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have all been destroyed?
Successful: -- 11%
Not successful: -- 84%
Is still alive but has gone into exile?
Successful: -- 39%
Not successful: -- 53%
Has been captured or killed?
Successful: -- 85%
Not successful: -- 11%
Q: How confident are you that U.S. military forces will find weapons of mass destruction?
Very confident -- 47%
Somewhat confident -- 28%
Not too confident -- 16%
Not confident at all -- 5%
Q: If the U.S. military doesn't find any weapons of mass destruction, would you still support the decision to take military action in Iraq at this time? (Asked only of those who said they support the decision to take military action against Iraq):
Still support strongly -- 62%
Still support somewhat -- 21%
Oppose -- 14%
Q: Do you think U.S. military action against Iraq is more likely to stabilize or destabilize the situation in the Middle East?
Stabilize -- 52%
Destabilize -- 21%
No effect -- 18%
Q: Who should lead the reconstruction effort in Iraq -- the U.S., or the U.N., or some other country?
U.S. -- 29%
U.N. -- 50%
Another country -- 7%
U.S./U.N. joint effort (volunteered) -- 7%
Iraq (volunteered) -- 3%
Q: Should the U.S. send peacekeeping forces to Iraq after the war, or not? If so, how long do you think they should stay?
No U.S. peacekeepers -- 17%
Up to 3 months -- 3%
Up to 6 months -- 6%
Up to a year -- 13%
Longer than a year -- 13%
As long as needed -- 43%
Q: Do you think the Iraqi people are welcoming the presence of U.S. troops in their country? If not, do you think that is because they are afraid that Saddam Hussein and his regime are still in power, or because they oppose the U.S. invading their land?
Welcoming U.S. troops -- 50%
Not welcoming, fear Hussein -- 28%
Not welcoming, oppose invasion -- 12%
Don't know -- 10%
Q: Do you think the nation's economy these days is doing well or badly?
Well -- 50%
Badly -- 47%
Don't know -- 3%
Q: Do you think that military action against Iraq will be good or bad for the U.S. economy?
Good -- 30%
Bad -- 38%
No impact -- 17%
Don't know -- 15%
War and the media
Q: Where are you getting most of your information about the war in Iraq? (Accepted up to three replies):
Cable news shows -- 69%
Newspapers -- 30%
Local news shows -- 23%
Network news shows -- 18%
Internet -- 13%
Radio news shows -- 8%
Family and friends -- 4%
Other -- 2%
Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way the media is handling the coverage of U.S. military action against Iraq?
*--* Approve Disapprove All 61% 34% Democrats 67 31 Independents 56 37 Republicans 61 37 Ages 18-44 67 31 Ages 45-64 50 43 Ages 65+ 72 24
Q: Reporters have been assigned to U.S. military units in Iraq and given unprecedented access to military action and personnel. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view:
"Greater media coverage is good for the country because it gives the American people an uncensored view of events as they unfold," or
"Greater media coverage is bad for the country because it provides too much information about military actions as they unfold"?
*--* Good for country Bad for country All 55% 37% Democrats 54 40 Independents 59 34 Republicans 53 41 Ages 18-44 60 35 Ages 45-64 53 40 Ages 65+ 51 44
Unless otherwise indicated, results shown represent all U.S. adults. Numbers may not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or some answer categories are not shown.
Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.
How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 745 Americans nationwide by telephone April 2 and 3. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.