Poll Analysis: Americans Are of Two Minds About War in Iraq

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More than half of the American public believe George W. Bush is not getting a balanced view of whether to go to war or not from his advisors, but rather a more hawkish view favoring military action in Iraq, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll. They also believe Bush and his administration are dealing with the war on terrorism as a reaction to events, rather than from a clear, formulated policy. The American public are not in a rush to go to war and they are very clear in their opinions that they want hard, concrete evidence before supporting any military action.

Still, almost three-quarters of Americans approve of the way George W. Bush is handling the threat of terrorism in the country, and nearly three out of five also approve of his handling the country’s foreign affairs.

Iraq and War

The American people are of two minds on the subject of Iraq. The rhetoric has been ratcheting up daily and everyday in the news there is another reason by the administration to go to war. So it isn’t surprising that most of those surveyed believe that war is inevitable (63%). But even with all the arguments for war, the American public is still moving along cautiously. In addition, their views haven’t changed since an August 2002 poll showed that they still want the United States to get the support of a multi-national coalition, rather than going it alone. (Only four percent don’t think war against Iraq will happen and a quarter say it may.) Fifty-one percent believe Bush is only listening to the advisors who advocate war, rather than receiving a balanced perspective (20%) or even a view opposing the war (11%). Yet, some of the arguments presented by the administration are getting through—almost two-thirds of the public support a preemptive strike philosophy when the U.S. is under threat (including 47% who strongly support it). Roughly about half each of political liberals and Democrats also endorse the right of the U.S. to engage in a preemptive strike. There really is no dissent along party lines or political ideologies, except for the strength of support.


Almost seven in 10 Americans agree (including 44% who agree strongly) that the country should take military action against Iraq only with the support of the international community. This result is basically the same as was found in the same August Times poll when respondents were asked the same question. At that time, 65% of respondents thought the U.S. should not act without the support of a multi-national coalition (including 43% who agreed strongly). This idea is supported by half of political conservatives and 52% of Republicans. Virtually all believe that the 12,000 page weapons declaration submitted by Iraq to the United Nations will not be truthful. Two thirds of the public have no confidence at all that the Iraqis will give a complete and truthful list of their weapons and another 26% say they are not too confident (for a combined 92% who have no confidence). But more than three out of five surveyed don’t think war would be justified, unless there were glaring omissions in the weapons declaration, that is, a pattern of serious violations. Still, more than a fifth say the U.S. and its allies would be justified if only there were a few things left out.

Although most of those interviewed say it is likely that the Iraqis are currently developing weapons of mass destruction—including 59% who say very likely and 31% who say somewhat likely—almost three out of five of those surveyed also believe that it is highly unlikely that the U.N. weapons inspectors will find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (38% believe the inspectors will likely find something). However, about half of the respondents think that if the U.N. inspectors don’t find any evidence of these weapons in Iraq, they then would be opposed to invading the Middle East country with U.S. ground troops. Interestingly, women were divided over this idea (45% favor going to war even without evidence, 43% oppose the war), while men were more incline to oppose war without concrete evidence (55% vs. 37% who are in favor of war even without clear proof). More than half each of those politically conservative and self identified as Republicans are in favor of going to war without hard evidence, while roughly about three in five Democrats, moderates and liberals are opposed, as well as independents (53%). Along with opposition to the war without any clear evidence of Iraq manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, the American public also wants the president to show them concrete evidence that Iraq is lying to them. And Bush has not yet made the case. More respondents say that President Bush has not provided enough evidence to go to war with Iraq (72%) than say the president has provided enough evidence. (23%). Also, a large plurality (45%) think the war with Iraq will be a bad thing for the economy, while 28% think the war will be good. About a fifth think it will make no difference one way or the other on the economy.

There is still apprehension about taking military action against Iraq. More than half of the nation (51%) believe that the war would more likely destabilize the Middle East region than stabilize it (20%) or that the war would have no effect on the stability of the region (19%). This poll shows a substantial 11 point increase in the public’s feelings about how the war will destabilize the Middle East region. Just 4 months ago, in the same August 2002 poll, only 40% thought a war with Iraq would destabilize the area. Besides the instability of the region, 67% believe military action against the Iraqis would increase terrorist attacks against Americans home and abroad. Only 15% believe it would reduce the threat against Americans. Those surveyed also don’t buy some of the arguments put forth by the Democrats and others that Bush wants to invade Iraq for political gains or for oil interests. Nearly 6 in ten of Americans say that Bush is considering an attack against Iraq more because Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States, while more than a third believe it is for political gain. Half say Bush is considering an attack because Hussein is a threat, compared to 37% who say he is doing this to protect the nation’s oil interests. Not surprising, Democrats and liberals say it is for both political gain and oil that Bush wants to invade Iraq.

But if President Bush decides to order U.S. troops into a ground attack against Iraq, the American people would support his decision. Fifty eight percent would support his decision, while 35% would oppose it. Among those who would support a ground troop attack against the Iraqis, a sizeable minority, 43%, would still support it if 5,000 or more troops were killed. The respondents also cite protecting the U. S. (27%), removing Hussein from power (27%) and ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (23%) as their top reasons why they are supporting the war. However, put another way, 42% of all Americans (not just those supporting the war) support the war and would also support the war if there were major casualties among the military, 10% would support the war, but would oppose it if there were casualties and 6% would support the war, but are not sure if they would support it if there were casualties. More than a third (35%) say they are opposed to war no matter what scenario. These results show a nation that is slightly more against war with Iraq than when the question was posed four months ago in a Times poll. In August, 45% supported the war and also supported the war if there were casualties among the military, 28% said they always were opposed to war. There is a gender gap on this highly charged issue. A majority of men (53%) would support the war and still support it if there were military troop casualties, compared to a third of women.

Along with the advent of war, comes an increasing number of Americans who are against war. They feel, and constitutionally so that they have the right to protest. And most Americans agree with that right to come out against the war. Seven in 10 surveyed believe that even if someone protests against the war, he or she is a loyal American. Not quite a fifth believe they are not loyal Americans and 12% have no opinion so far on this issue. This belief cuts across party and political ideology lines.

However, if the U.S. and its allies do remove Hussein from power, an overwhelming majority (70%) agree (including 43% who strongly agree) that the nations fighting Iraq must stay and help rebuild a new government and help rebuild the economy.


Homeland Security

The nation is ambivalent about the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Just 45% of those surveyed think this department will make the U.S. safer from terrorist attacks, while 43% think it will make no difference and 6% believe the department will make the U.S. less safe. Republicans (62%) and conservatives (53%) are more hopeful about this department— they think it will help make the nation safer from attacks. On the other side, more than half of Democrats and 55% of liberals believe it will make no difference whether this department was created or not. There is a gender gap on this issue—a little more than a third of women and 52% of men think the Department of Homeland Security will make it safer for Americans.

Other Issues

United Nations: The United States has had a love/hate relationship with the United Nations going back many decades. Jesse Helms, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has spent years saying that the U.N. was a threat to American sovereignty. Conservative Republicans have been opposed to paying such huge dues to the U.N. because they say the organization is biased toward third world countries and are too critical of the United States. They also are opposed to some of the money being used by U.N. agencies such as UNICEF for endorsing planned parenthood. During Clinton’s tenure, however, he was able to pay off billions of dollars owed for back dues. However, even with the criticism, more than half of Americans have a favorable impression of the United Nations, while about a quarter have an unfavorable impression and another quarter have no opinion. Not surprising then, conservative Republicans have a more negative view of the organization (47%), compared to 71% of moderate Republicans who have a favorable impression. Democrats have a more favorable opinion about this institution (58%–11%) than Republicans (50%–37%). Self-described liberals are also more favorable toward this organization (67%–13%) than conservatives (44%–38%). Although men and women view the UN in a favorable light, men have a slightly more unfavorable impression of this group (52% favorable vs. 30% unfavorable) than women (53% favorable vs.16% unfavorable).

Saudi Arabia: There has been a lot of negative news about Saudi Arabia and their unwittingly giving money to terrorist groups through what they thought were benign charity organizations. So it is surprising that just 6% see this country as an enemy to the U.S. and 19% perceive the Saudis as unfriendly, but not quite an enemy. Forty-one percent think of the country as friendly, but not an ally and just 5% think of them as an ally. More than a quarter aren’t sure what to make of their allegiance to the U.S.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,305 Americans nationwide by telephone Dec. 12–15. 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 3 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.