Americans back Iraq war – warily

The Christian Science Monitor / TIPP poll

As the country prepares for possible war in Iraq – Congress and the President having declared that Saddam Hussein is a despot who must go – Americans remain watchful and wary.

They generally agree that "regime change" in Iraq is called for, even if it means by force. But as is often the case with issues of national or international importance, individual doubts and nuances of feeling enter into the discussion when the political becomes personal – when the theoretical is tempered by one's direct experience.

"Saddam is a danger to the world," says Bonnie Banicki, who works in a nursing home in Markesan, Wis. "If they can prove that [a US attack on Baghdad] is necessary, then go for it." Four of her six children have served in the military, and she'd encourage her grandchildren to sign up as well.

Still, says Ms. Banicki, the prospect of war "scares me to death." She lost a brother in Vietnam, and one of her sons is a career Army sergeant who's already served in Kosovo. "Yes, we need a strong military," she says, "but having a strong military and being militant are two different things."

Banicki, along with 911 other adult Americans, was interviewed last week as part of a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll. In general, the country thinks President Bush is showing good leadership, according to this survey, and he gets high marks for strengthening the military, fighting terrorism, and "encouraging high moral standards and values."

But his grades on foreign affairs and education are mixed at best, and on other important domestic issues – the economy, Social Security, Medicare reform, and managing the federal budget – large majorities grade him at no better than a gentleman's C.

How Mr. Bush is doing here affects the confidence people have in his abilities to lead the nation into war. This reflects not only the mood of the country, but it could be important to the outcome of congressional elections less than three weeks away.

Overall, most Americans continue to think the president is doing a good job. But Mr. Bush's approval rating has dropped steadily in recent months, from 87 percent in January to 63 percent in the Monitor/TIPP survey taken last week.

On the war issue, three-quarters say it's important that the US take military action within the next six months to remove Mr. Hussein, and half say there's enough evidence right now linking the Iraqi leader to terrorism.

"My grandfather always said, 'to keep a snake from biting you, you cut off its head,' " says Donald Jenkins, who owns a mobile-home park in Winchester, Va.

And if that means many years of US forces stationed in Iraq after the fighting stops (as has been the case in Germany and South Korea), so be it, says Mr. Jenkins. "If you don't, your grandchildren may end up with the same problem – only a whole lot worse."

Many Americans apparently agree. "The way I see it, we should do something [about Hussein] in the near future," says Dan Akerley, a young emergency medical technician in Dolgeville, New York. "If we don't, I see more troubles brewing. We should have taken care of this when the first George Bush was president."

Still, many question the official reasons for ousting Hussein. (Nearly 40 percent say a major factor motivating administration policy is "diverting attention from the domestic economic situation.") And beneath the surface of support lies deep unease with America's role in the region – especially with the prospect of go-it-alone military action.

"I'm not opposed to the use of military force if there's a direct threat," says Sally, who works in a politically sensitive position in Washington and asks that her last name not be used. "But I feel like we're rushing into war."

Given last year's terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the anthrax episodes that followed, and the recent sniper killings in her area, Sally is very concerned about her own security. Her view is that the US should concentrate on stopping Al Qaeda. "Iraq is not Afghanistan," she says.

Margie Soni, who's a nurse practitioner in a clinic for the homeless in Boise, Idaho, thinks the US has "a legitimate role as the world's superpower ... but shouldn't be the bully on the block."

"I think [Hussein's] a bad guy," she says. "But I don't subscribe to the theory that it's up to the United States to decide who leads which country."

Others are blunter in their assessment.

"Sure, he's a dictator and maybe he's a terrorist," says Wren Osborn, a retired probation officer and public-school teacher in El Cajon, Calif. "But we're going off half-cocked for political reasons, for oil reasons, for hegemony reasons – who knows?"

While the armed services get consistently high public marks compared with other national institutions, that doesn't mean there's a rush to enlist. Only about half say they'd volunteer to serve in wartime or encourage a family member to do so. Barely more than one-quarter would favor reestablishing the draft if the US finds itself at war and needing many more active-duty personnel.

This is especially true of those who have served during past wars or those who come from military families.

Roy Williams of North Wilkesboro, N.C., has his own marketing business and he's also a United Methodist pastor. Some 30 years ago, he spent five years in the Air Force – some of that time with Special Forces units in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, a period in his life he doesn't readily discuss.

"Iraq is a threat," he says flatly. "If you pretend that [Hussein's] not there, you're going to have a monster."

"As Christians, we may think we can pray our way out of it," he continues. "But I'm reminded of when God sent the Israelites into battle."

But the tone in his voice indicates a sad resignation rather than any sense of triumph.

"The war we fight will be against a lot of innocent young men and women in Iraq," he says. "I don't want anybody to have to take a life, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do."

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