Why US Public Is War Ready

With Vietnam a dim memory, Americans, including those at Chuy's diner, back airstrikes.

If the mood at Chuy's Restaurant here is any gauge of American public opinion, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should consider taking out extra insurance on those secret presidential palaces.

"I'm not for blindly bombing people to oblivion, but I think we've done everything we can as far as peacekeeping and diplomacy are concerned," says computer engineer Bob Dehm. "If that means an airstrike against Iraq, so be it. Sorry, you asked my opinion."

Chuy's, with its hubcap-covered walls and jalapeno-hot entrees, may seem an odd location for an informal survey on foreign policy. But quite frankly, any diner in America might yield the same results. Recent public opinion surveys show strong support for US military action against Iraq, an indication that America is not quite ready to walk softly and not carry any kind of stick in world affairs.

For now, the likelihood of military action seems greater than ever. The US has secured the support of Gulf War allies Britain, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

It will have permission to launch airstrikes from Kuwait and other Gulf states, including Bahrain, but, significantly, not Saudi Arabia. In addition, the US currently has two aircraft-carrier groups in the Persian Gulf, and there are reports that the US Army will be calling an additional 3,000 troops to beef up its presence along the Saudi border.

According to one survey, conducted by the Los Angeles Times in late January, nearly 3 out of 4 respondents approve of US airstrikes if Saddam does not cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. Some 68 percent said airstrikes should be designed not only to make Saddam more compliant, but also to remove him from power.

"What is interesting is that before the Gulf War, polls showed it would have been a very hard sell to make this unilateral" in taking action against Iraq, says Susan Pinkus, director of polling for the Los Angeles Times. "Now, I don't think that would be a problem."

Having won the last conflict with Iraq, Americans may feel confident enough to take action again with fewer allies, such as Britain, Germany, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Americans' favorite villain

But Ms. Pinkus says the polls also show that Americans feel there's a bit of unfinished business at hand. "The fact that [Saddam's] still in power put the kibosh on the celebrations of the Gulf War," she says. And as for American attitudes toward the Iraqi leader: "They can't stand the guy."

Of course, American attitudes toward war are more complex than a simple "bombs away." Mention the use of ground troops, or an occupation of Baghdad, which some military experts say would be necessary to actually remove Saddam from power, and public support drops precipitously.

But for now, President Clinton and Pentagon officials are talking of slowing and reducing Iraq's capacity for making chemical weapons; they have not broached removing Saddam himself.

Historically, Americans have long preferred to keep their enmity toward foreign despots to themselves. But all that changed in the 20th century, as the United States completed its westward expansion, gained confidence in foreign affairs, and faced a new breed of tyrants bent on world domination. In the process, it adopted a new role: the global policeman.

"For the last 60 years, Americans have stayed with the view that you can't let tyrants have their way," says Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "And when you look at the amazing array of bad guys we've faced, from Hitler and Stalin to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Saddam, it's amazing."

But in an era where cold war enemies have disappeared, and smaller regional wars abound, many experts question how long America's global policeman role will last. "I don't feel confident that it will outlast the current generation," Mr. O'Hanlon says.

Indeed, there's a sizeable minority of Americans who question whether every diplomatic avenue has been tried in the current Iraqi crisis, before the US resorts to military action.

Where are the deputies?

Others say the US should get out of the business of settling foreign disputes, and let Iraq's neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, shoulder more of the policing burden.

"I don't think we should send our boys to fight other people's wars," says plumber Alan Lanni, tipping his blue baseball cap into the late afternoon sun. "It's a waste of too much money, and too many lives."

But this viewpoint remains in the minority, especially at Chuy's, where the music has mysteriously switched to the late Karen Carpenter.

"You're talking about a madman who could unleash weapons of mass destruction," says Brian French, who works at one of Austin's many computer firms. Someone has to stop Saddam, he adds, "and we have the power and the leadership to do it."

One Chuy's customer is more blunt. "I think they should annihilate him," says the gentleman, who like a seasoned White House aide, requests anonymity. "Hussein is accountable to nobody," he continues, then begins to tick off the dangers of the Iraqi leader on his hand. "They've been manufacturing, fabricating, and buying nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. If you ask me, we need to finish the job this time."

The man's wife smiles and takes his arm. "My husband's a retired Air Force colonel. He doesn't mince words."

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