POLLS, the late George Gallup often said, can buttress democracy by giving the public a chance to express directly its views on the great issues of the day. While 50 years of polling generally proves Gallup right, the result he hoped for requires that analysts listen carefully to what the public stipulates and then report it precisely. Assessments of US opinion on the Gulf crisis are the latest indication that many analysts have trouble, especially as they confuse their own judgments with what the public has to say. The prevailing tone of reporting on American opinion in the crisis was reflected in a recent National Journal article by my friend William Schneider. The public, Schneider argues, ``draws the line, sharply and clearly, between a defensive and an offensive strategy.'' It backs the former, but rejects the latter. When, last month, the Bush administration announced an increase inUS troop strength in the Gulf, ``the public got spooked because it thought the administration was ready to go to war.'' Americans don't want war, Schneider concludes, and certainly aren't ready for it.
In fact, the latest poll findings reject most of these assessments. The one the polls support is that Americans don't want war. They never have, of course. Today is the 49th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans surely didn't want war then. In the years since Pearl Harbor, research has consistently found the public reluctant to see military action initiated.
Within the boundaries of this judgment however, the public's stand on the Gulf crisis has been distinguished by notably high support for a strong US response. From the beginning of the crisis clear majorities have accepted the argument that this country has vital interests in resisting Iraq's invasion of Kuwait; that these interests justify the commitment of military force; and if other means do not bring an Iraqi withdrawal, that military power should be used.
``Do you agree or disagree that the United States should take all action necessary, including the use of military force, to make sure that Iraq withdraws its forces from Kuwait?,'' ABC News and the Washington Post asked Nov. 14-15: 65 percent agreed, while only 26 percent disagreed.
Recent administration actions, including increasing US troop strength in the Gulf area, haven't ``spooked'' the public. The Yankelovich Clancy Shulman poll of Nov. 14 (done for Time and CNN) asked respondents whether they favored the president's decision ``to almost double the number of troops in the Middle East'': 52 percent endorsed the decision, 40 percent opposed it. The ABC/Post poll of the same time found somewhat higher approval - 61 percent to 34 percent. The Gordon Black survey of Dec. 1-2 (for USA Today) inquired whether ``Bush [is] focusing too much on military solutions, too much on diplomatic solutions, or ... about the right amount on both?'' Sixty percent thought he was striking the right balance; just 22 percent criticized him for too great a military emphasis, and 11 percent for too much diplomacy.
Polls now show a growing segment wanting stronger US action. For example, of the 36 percent who, in the ABC/Post survey of mid-November, disapproved Bush's handling of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, about half said they did so because ``he's moving too slowly against Iraq.''
Every recent survey has found a majority wanting to give diplomacy and sanctions additional time. Just 24 percent, for example, of those surveyed by Gallup Nov. 15-16 thought that the president ``should quickly begin military action against Iraq ....'' But there is also a clear sense that the crisis should not be permitted to drag on without resolution. Nearly half of the 70 percent who told Gallup interviewers that Bush ``should wait to see if economic and diplomatic sanctions are effective,'' responded to a subsequent question that the US should be prepared to wait only about one to three months; about a fifth thought we should wait a year or more. In the Gordon Black survey of Dec. 1-2, 42 percent said the US should attack if Iraq has not begun withdrawing from Kuwait by Jan. 15; 49 percent would still give sanctions more time.
I wrote in this column Sept. 7 that I could find no other instance in the 45 years since World War II when so large a proportion of Americans endorsed committing troops prior to their actual engagement. Poll results of the last three months reinforce this conclusion.