Despite a few recent protests, a large majority of Americans appears to support U.S. President George W. Bush and his threat to use military action against Iraq. But U.S. public opinion can quickly change, depending largely on how the war is waged and how successful it is. As RFE/RL reports, if it goes badly, the president may be the first to pay.
Washington, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Americans' support for a possible war on Iraq is high these days. But history and polling suggest public opinion is still gripped by a "Vietnam Syndrome" and sours fast if things go badly and Americans start coming home in body bags.
Recent surveys by top U.S. organizations engaged in polling -- such as Gallup, "Newsweek" magazine, CBS television, and "The New York Times" -- suggest that between 60 and 70 percent of Americans back the use of force to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
A few antiwar demonstrations, notably in the liberal hotbed of San Francisco, were staged last week to protest a vote in Congress giving Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq. But while activists vow there will be more demonstrations -- including later this month at the United Nations in New York and in Washington -- the U.S. peace camp is still a tiny minority, says John Zogby, whose Zogby International is a leading American polling organization.
"The American people certainly consider Saddam Hussein a threat: 70 percent say that he threatens American interests. They'd like him removed, out of the picture, whatever -- and if it takes a war or seven years of locusts, they'll support it."
But the devil, according to pollsters, is in the details.
Recent polls conducted separately by "Newsweek" and CNN/Gallup/"USA Today" say that more than 65 percent of Americans support using force against Iraq. But that number fell to 48 percent in the "Newsweek" poll if large numbers of U.S. ground troops have to be sent in to control Iraq.
And, in virtually all polls, around 60 percent of Americans say they consider it very important that any war have the backing of the international community and the United Nations.
The Bush administration is currently seeking to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council that would authorize the use of force if Iraq does not comply with UN resolutions. A recent poll by CBS News and "The New York Times" says that 65 percent of Americans believe the U.S. must wait for the UN to authorize any use of force before it acts against Iraq.
But trying to find out just how much Americans support an Iraqi war can get even trickier, Zogby tells RFE/RL. It all depends on how you ask the question.
What if thousands of U.S. ground troops are needed? What if there are hundreds -- or thousands -- of American casualties? What if your son or daughter has to fight? What if America fights alone, or without broad international support? Zogby says each of these questions elicits a different response.
"Every time you add one of those qualifiers or variables into the mix, support for the war goes down dramatically -- in some instances, into the mid- to the high 30 percentile. And so clearly, the American people need to be persuaded about this war."
And that's where antiwar activists hope to make their mark.
The Bush administration continues to maintain that it has yet to make a decision on whether to use force against Saddam, whom it accuses of harboring weapons of mass destruction. But activists around the country are starting to mobilize in a bid to stop any war before it starts.
Last week, 8,000 people marched in downtown San Francisco against the war and 46 protesters were arrested after trying to block federal employees from going to work. The protest followed small demonstrations at many universities, primarily in California, but also notably in the Boston area.
Jason Mark works with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group that is helping to organize nationwide and global opposition to a war in Iraq. It is also helping to organize protests at the UN on 24 October and in San Francisco and Washington on 26 October.
Asked about American public opinion toward an Iraqi war, Mark says the important thing is not the percentage of people who support it, but those who don't. He notes that in several recent polls, including the one by CNN/Gallup/"USA Today," 40 percent of Americans say they oppose a U.S. ground-troop invasion of Iraq with 7 percent saying they are unsure:
"That means that basically 50 percent of the American public is either against this war or deeply uncertain about whether we should undertake an invasion of Iraq at all."
Mark says that opposition to the war is based on two points. One is that the U.S., because of its history of nonaggression and the dangerous precedent it would set, should not strike another country preemptively. The other point is that Mark believes a war on Iraq would actually be detrimental to American security:
"I think the main question for policymakers in the post-September 11 world, especially when it comes to foreign policy, is: is this policy going to enhance U.S. security, or erode it? And if it's not going to make us safer, it's not a step we should take. And this war is certainly not going to make us safer. It's going to destabilize the Middle East, inflame anti-American sentiment, and again, in the final analysis, it's going to erode security."
Mark predicts there will be tens of thousands at this month's protests in New York and Washington, and he and other activists hope to build their cause into a national and international movement that will pressure the American government and key U.S. allies to back off from any war.
While that remains to be seen, the history of U.S. antiwar movements suggests that most Americans will support or at least tolerate war so long as it is going well.
Such examples date back to the 1861-1865 Civil War, when many Northerners opposed war against the secessionist, slavery-supporting South -- that is, until the Union Army achieved a major success, capturing the southern city of Atlanta.
More recently, the anti-Vietnam war protests that exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s didn't really get started until it became clear that the war was being lost and tens of thousands of American soldiers were coming home in body bags. The disaster led President Lyndon Johnson to decide against seeking a second term in the 1968 election.
And during the 1991 Gulf War, there were only a few protests in the U.S., but most fizzled out well before the war's end. Why? According to Mitchell Stephens, a professor of mass communication at New York University, those protests never got off the ground simply because it was clear that the U.S. was winning the war and not paying a high human toll for it.
The same could be said of the recent Afghan war, in which victory came quickly and only a handful of U.S. servicemen died.
Zogby makes this observation: "The American people, I find in my polling, are still very much in the midst of the post-Vietnam War era. They [Americans] want their wars to be quick, they want them won, and they want us out of there."
But if the war should go badly, or if terrorist attacks continue to hit U.S. interests despite success in operations in Iraq, the antiwar movement could quickly gain steam.
A recent full-page ad in "The New York Times," placed by a group calling themselves "Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities," made an argument against the war. The ad shows a picture of Osama bin Laden looking like Uncle Sam and saying: "I want you to invade Iraq," in order to fuel more Muslim hatred of America and distract the U.S. from fighting Al-Qaeda. In the ad, Bin Laden concludes: "So please -- invade Iraq. Make my day."
For now, Bush remains a popular president and Americans largely believe he is pursuing the right policy on Iraq. But Zogby says that policy is not without risk: "Americans today are feeling very insecure. This war, if there is a war, better make them feel more secure, because if they don't feel more secure during and immediately after such a war, it could truly backfire politically."
And with a presidential election looming in 2004, such a scenario just might deliver a knockout blow for Bush.