Americans of every stripe are worried that the U.S. occupation of Iraq could turn into a quagmire, and most are unconvinced that President Bush has a clear plan to handle the problem, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
But voters' concerns about the war do not necessarily translate into support for Bush's Democratic rivals in the 2004 presidential campaign, the poll found. Despite their misgivings, a narrow majority of respondents said they still trusted Bush to make the right decisions on Iraq, and a solid majority gave him high marks for his conduct of the war on terrorism.
Overall, most appear deeply unhappy about Iraq and uncertain that Bush's strategy is succeeding -- but they also are willing to give him more time to try.
"My biggest fear is: Is this thing going to end up being like Vietnam?" said Alan Geleske, 50, of Michigan City, Ind., one of 1,345 adults questioned in the nationwide poll. "It doesn't seem like there are any clear-cut objectives ... and the casualty list is growing. It's a concern. I have a son and a son-in-law in the Army."
On the other hand, Geleske said, "I haven't seen any Democratic candidate I can get behind ... and I do admire what Bush did when 9/11 occurred." He said he hadn't decided how he would vote next year; "it's too early."
The distress over casualties has driven many who supported the invasion of Iraq in the spring to question whether it was worth the cost. Only about a third of the public now believes it was worth the loss of so many military lives, the poll found.
Still, a large majority said they supported keeping U.S. troops in Iraq at least until order is restored; only about a fifth said they favored an unconditional withdrawal.
"Nobody likes to see all those servicemen being killed," said Stephanie Weber, 88, a retired railroad employee in Ingleside, Ill. "I don't think [Bush] has a clear plan.... But under the circumstances, he's doing the best he can." Weber, who said she voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, now plans to vote for Bush in 2004 -- "because he's been so dogged about getting after the terrorists."
The president said Thursday he was determined to keep U.S. troops in Iraq -- and to increase their number, if necessary -- until his goals are met. "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq, what is ever necessary to secure Iraq," Bush told reporters in London.
In April, as U.S. forces swept into Iraq, the Times Poll found 77% of the public said they supported the decision to go to war.
But this week, when asked whether it had been worth going to war, only 48% said yes; 43% said no. Underlying that relatively even split is a marked partisan divide: Only 30% of Democrats now say the war was worthwhile, compared with 76% of Republicans.
The fear of a long military entanglement cuts across political boundaries, but with a partisan gap as well. Asked how they felt about the possibility that the United States could become "bogged down" in Iraq, 86% of all respondents said they were concerned, and most said they were "very concerned." But Democrats expressed more concern than Republicans.
Opinions of Bush's handling of the Iraq issue are even more closely divided and polarized along partisan lines, the poll found. A narrow majority of all respondents, 53%, said they trusted Bush and his advisors to make the right decisions on Iraq, as opposed to 41% who said they did not. But among Republicans, 86% said they trusted Bush to make the right decisions; only 27% of Democrats agreed.
Likewise, about half of all respondents, 52%, said they did not believe Bush had a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, while 39% said he did have a clear plan. But underneath those numbers is another deep partisan divide: 73% of Republicans say Bush has a clear plan, but only 19% of Democrats agree.
In that sense, only seven months after U.S. troops seized Baghdad in a war that won broad support, the toll of combat has redivided the public.
On one side is Paul Evans, a retired garage owner in Bradenton, Fla.: "You can't walk in, destroy a government and say, 'See you later.' ... I believe he's trying to do a good job."
On the other side is Rose Petri of St. Louis, who voted for Bush but regrets it: "We have no strategy, we have no plan, we have no allies, and we have no time limit to bring our kids home. I'll vote for whoever the Democrat is [in 2004]. If it's a frog, I'll vote for him."
Bush has retained broader support for his leadership in the global campaign against terrorism. Among all respondents, 59% said they approve of the way the president is handling the war on terrorism and 35% disapprove. Among Democrats, 42% approve and 50% disapprove -- Bush's best showing among Democrats on any major issue.
As for the future in Iraq, the public appears divided and uncertain.
Asked whether Bush should increase or decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, respondents split three ways: 35% favored a reduction in troops and a faster transfer of authority to Iraqis, 29% said the current troop level should be maintained, and 24% said the number of troops should be increased to shore up the country's stability.
Asked whether the U.S. military should stay in Iraq until democracy is established or only long enough to restore order, the public split again: 41% favored staying just long enough to secure order, 33% were willing to stay longer to establish democracy -- even if that means continued casualties -- and only 19% favored withdrawing before either objective is met.
The poll suggests that Bush has not yet convinced most Americans that spreading democracy in the Arab and Muslim world is worth taking risks for.
Half of respondents said they agreed with Bush's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East, but not if it required using military force. Only 14% said they would support using force to help bring democracy to Arab countries; 29% said they didn't believe the United States should be promoting democracy at all.
Those sentiments were held relatively evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Despite continuing controversy, most Americans don't believe Bush and his advisors deliberately exaggerated reports that Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons before the war.
A third of respondents said they expected the weapons of mass destruction would be found eventually, as Bush has forecast. About three in 10 said they believed that weapons didn't exist, but that the administration was misled by inaccurate intelligence reports before the war. Only 26% of respondents said they believed Bush deliberately exaggerated reports about the weapons.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,345 adults from Nov. 15 through 18; included in the survey were 1,144 registered voters. The margin of sampling error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Bush and war
When asked how President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, a larger percentage of Americans now disapprove, compared with those asked in April, according to a new Times poll:
*--* April '03 Now Approve 74% 45% Disapprove 24% 51%
Source: Times polls
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Bush and the war on terrorism
Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the war on terrorism?
Don't know: 6%
Q: Over the past three years, do you think Bush's policies on terrorism and national security have made the country more or less secure?
More secure: 57%
Less secure: 12%
No difference: 27%
Don't know: 4%
Q: Do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?
Worth it: 48%
Not worth it: 43%
Don't know: 9%
Q: Do you think the outcome of the war in Iraq has been worth ...
*--* Yes No Don't know The financial cost to the U.S.: 31% 59% 10% The cost in U.S. military lives: 35% 57% 8%
Q: Do you think Bush and his advisors have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, or not?
No clear plan: 52%
Don't know: 9%
Q: Are you concerned about the possibility that the U.S. will become bogged down in a long and costly effort in Iraq?
Very concerned: 54%
Somewhat concerned: 32%
Not too concerned: 11%
Not at all concerned: 2%
Notes: Results shown are among all U.S. adults. Numbers may not total 100% where 'Don't know' responses are not shown.
Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.
How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 1,345 adults nationwide, including 1,144 registered voters, by telephone Nov. 15 though 18. 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 of adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all adults and registered voters is 3 percentage points in either direction. Poll results can be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.