Talk About War Reveals Stark Divisions

Times Staff Writer

People often stop Lin Wefel as she walks along the streets of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, wearing her green crochet wool hat pinned with a "No War" button.

The Chinese corner grocer, the student from New York University, the Arab American neighbor -- all confide that they too oppose a war, and ask where she got the button.

"Nobody I know is for the war," said Wefel, a 51-year-old office worker who is a dedicated sender of e-mail protests to public officials from City Hall to the White House. Alluding to the war protests across the country in mid-February, she added, "If that many people showed up, there must be something wrong with the polls."

Like the political differences that divided the country in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, public opinion about a war in Iraq is again showcasing America's fissures.

This time the split is less even and voters in the middle -- those whose support for war is conditioned on U.N. Security Council blessings or projections about costs and casualties -- hold the balance of power.

According to the latest Times Poll, there is a core group of at least one-third of those polled who favor sending ground troops to Iraq without reservation and almost as many opposed to going to war at all. For the rest, opinion swings with the news -- up when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presents the evidence against Iraq, down when U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix suggests Iraqi cooperation.

But shadows of a country again split by ideology and culture are evident. A survey by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press published Feb. 21 found that rural people favor war more than those in large cities, 78% to 62%; high school graduates more than college graduates, 71% to 58%; men more than women, 73% to 63%; Republicans more than Democrats, 87% to 54%; evangelicals more than secularists, 85% to 66%; whites more than blacks, 73% to 44%.

Talk to voters on either side of the divide, and the national debate about war gets personal.

"I know people we won't even discuss it with anymore," said Celesde Boteler, a 70-year-old homemaker and foster mother who lives in a working-class neighborhood outside Baltimore and fervently backs war. "There is such an adamant feeling either for or against the war. You can more rationally discuss religion."

Boteler said she has been upset about Iraq since U.S. troops left in 1991, a mission that in her view was left unfinished. "We've been taken for a ride," she said. "I'm extremely upset over the fact that [Gen. H. Norman] Schwarzkopf didn't have 24 more hours. He was thwarted. I've been upset ever since. I'm willing to go in now and do what we have to do to get him and his regime out of the way."

She is frightened that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops. She is mystified when protesters question whether Hussein has such weapons, since U.S. soldiers are preparing to don protective suits in case they are subjected to biological or chemical weapons. She has neighbors she no longer talks to about the war. "If they want to protest, fine, it's a free country," she said. "I'm so thankful we have that freedom; we can voice opinions without being shot in back. But Bush is on the right track."

Wefel worries about the cost of war. She said the money the United States has offered in aid to Turkey, in exchange for access to military bases there, could better be used by communities in this country. "We're giving billions to Turkey and every city is cutting vital programs," she said. "The library is cutting its hours. It's a gross misuse of funds."

She is furious at Bush for dismissing out of hand the voices of protesters. "It annoyed me so much I e-mailed him," Wefel said. "Protest is one of the hallmarks of democracy. We're the citizens who pay his salary. It's un-American."

From the rooftop of her building in Lower Manhattan, she watched the World Trade Center towers burn. But she does not believe the war in Afghanistan was successful, and thinks war in general, and this one in particular, is evidence of misplaced machismo. "It's idiotic and childhood stuff. It's embarrassing, like 'I'm bigger, and have more bombs.' There are other ways to solve problems."

In St. Charles, Ill., 40 miles west of Chicago, Randy Nations talks to colleagues on both sides of the issue regularly. The 28-year-old manufacturing foreman thinks the "extreme antiwar protesters have blinders on. They want a great big world hug. It's a fairy tale. Nobody wants to go and fight, but sometimes war is necessary."

Puzzled that the U.N. Security Council seems "so wishy-washy" and echoing the White House call to action, Nations added, "There is a definite right and wrong, and Iraq has been wrong for a very long time. It's time for somebody to disarm [Hussein]. And if no one else is willing to step up to the plate, well the U.S. has had to do that before. Fear is not an option."

To Luke Williams, a 52-year-old commodities and cattle broker in Greeley, Colo., the issue is less about conquest than consequences. He worries that invading Iraq will fuel anti-American sentiment among Muslims.

"The only people happy when we go in will be [the Rev.] Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden, and I don't want to be in their company," he said. "I don't know that we won't end up destroying governments in that region. It could add more fuel to fundamentalism."

Williams, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he listens mostly to the BBC and National Public Radio because the mainstream media has gotten "so sensationalist, it's almost like listening to Rush Limbaugh." He wonders why the media has stopped talking about the shipment of missiles from North Korea that was intercepted off the coast of Yemen, or about what he sees as U.S. culpability in empowering Hussein. And he lamented that the public is not well-informed. "I doubt half even know where Iraq is."

According to Pew's latest survey, 6 in 10 Americans are following the debate over military action in Iraq very closely, and another quarter fairly closely. Interest in Iraq in February (62%) topped concern about the high price of gasoline (53% follow that issue very closely), the deaths of the Columbia shuttle astronauts (46%), North Korea's nuclear program (33%) and the president's tax plan (26%).

This means a third of the country is not paying particular attention to impending war, and one political scientist argued that these voters are likely in the president's camp. "Those without a lot of knowledge historically defer to presidential leadership on international affairs," said Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.

Liberals are more distrustful of Bush's motives. William McInturff, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, found in a survey that hard-core Democrats were twice as likely as the general public -- by a margin of 61% to 30% -- to believe that Bush was focusing on Iraq to draw attention from his failure to capture Bin Laden.

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