Invading Iraq: Would the public go along?

Polls show Americans are wary of a war, which may force Bush to do more selling.

Plans for a US invasion of Iraq are being drawn and redrawn. News reports of a likely military push against Saddam Hussein unfold daily. And the American public almost uniformly agrees with President Bush in viewing the Iraqi regime as "evil." In fact, many believe Mr. Hussein poses a greater danger than Osama bin Laden.

But the effort to unseat Hussein faces important hurdles with the American public, with prospective allies overseas, and even in some quarters of the military. In recent polls, when weighing whether Washington should use military force to unseat Hussein, the public becomes more tentative in its backing, diverging from the drum-beating rhetoric of Mr. Bush.

Indeed, opinion polls suggest that the Bush administration must put forward a more powerful case than it has so far to mobilize the public fully behind a military invasion of Iraq. Moreover, Bush must offer more proof of threats posed by Iraq's links to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism – and use such evidence to build an international military coalition.

In essence, Bush needs to lay the political and diplomatic groundwork for a military campaign against Iraq, much as his father did in the six months prior to launching the Gulf War in 1991, say analysts.

"He is making threatening statements to warn Saddam Hussein and rattling swords, but in terms of the international community, he doesn't have the support or a place to launch the invasion. He does not have deep public support," says James Thurber, a professor of government at American University.

A gung-ho public?

Still, mobilizing public opinion is a task clearly within The White House's reach. A June 21 Gallup poll found that 59 percent of respondents favor sending American troops to the Persian Gulf to topple Hussein.

But more detailed questions by pollsters indicate that many people have caveats to add. A little more than half of Americans say that if the US wins some allied support, they would approve of military action against Iraq, according to another June Gallup poll. That number shrinks to a minority, however, in a scenario where the United States would go it alone – an option administration officials have not ruled out.

"The public wants the company of our friends in dealing with global bad guys, and would be much more comfortable doing this with our allies," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Solidifying such support, among major European allies will be contingent upon clear evidence of Iraqi transgressions. For example, large majorities of people polled in the United States as well as Britain, Germany, Italy, and France, say that an important – or very important – criterion to justify the use of military force would be the certainty that Iraq is now developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Also important – although more so to the Americans than to the Europeans – would be proof that Baghdad helped terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, according to an April poll by the Pew Research Center.

The US government will have to lay out the case against Hussein, says Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service.

"If there is not a clear and present danger on Iraq, I think public support is going to be slow to come around," he says.

Moreover, the US public appears to lack President Bush's sense of urgency. Polls show the public is willing to wait for an international alliance and for a quieting down of the Mideast crisis.

Hesitations over strategy

In terms of military strategy, Bush is considering a war plan that reportedly would involve up to 250,000 US troops in a three-pronged, air, land, and sea assault on Iraq. Yet the public remains ambivalent about dispatching US ground troops, with 7 out of 10 preferring only airstrikes in one March poll.

Indeed, some Americans and members of the armed forces question whether Washington has a well-thought-out plan, including clear objectives for Iraq's future.

"I think there is enormous reluctance in many circles up to the highest levels in the US military about taking on Iraq," says Col. David Tretler, a strategist at the National War College here. He expresses concern that the military would not have be given a sufficiently free hand or adequate resources to overthrow the regime, thus resulting in a sizable cost.

Colonel Tretler and others in the military stress that a political vision for Iraq is a vital prerequisite to waging war. "The time to declare a desired end state for Iraq is now, before we consider how best to use the military tool to fashion and consolidate what is essentially a political outcome," writes Roger Carstens, a member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs.

All of these reservations make it likely that Bush will postpone a potentially messy military campaign against Iraq until at least after the US general elections in November, says Fred Greenstein, an expert on the presidency at Princeton University in New Jersey. In coming months, however, a continued refusal by Iraq to allow in UN weapons inspectors could foster an international coalition to topple Hussein.

Alternatively, Bush may initially attempt to use the less-controversial tool of covert action. He reportedly has authorized CIA agents and elite US troops to use lethal force to oust Hussein.

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