Watching and waiting

As an invasion of Iraq nears, support at home grows - reflecting, in part, a new national outlook since 9/11.

Americans are not entirely comfortable with the Bush administration's handling of diplomacy, and many still have concerns about going to war without UN approval. But as the nation stands on the brink of hostilities with Iraq, a substantial majority of Americans agree that Saddam Hussein represents a major threat to US security - and for many, that belief is enough to justify military action.

In the past two weeks, overall support for the war has risen slightly, to 64 percent in a new Gallup poll. More revealing, Americans now regard the ousting of Mr. Hussein as a higher priority in the war on terror than fighting Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, according to a new survey by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF).

In part, the growing support for war may stem from the fact that many Americans have come to view the conflict as inevitable, and are now simply eager to get it over with. It also reflects a common tendency to rally around the president at a time of crisis: Most experts predict support will jump even higher once the fighting begins, as it did during the previous Gulf War.

Yet it's also a measure of the ways in which the attacks of 9/11 still resonate among Americans - fostering a widespread sense of insecurity, and shaping a new national outlook on questions of defense and foreign policy. While most other nations view war with Iraq as unnecessary and even immoral, many Americans accept President Bush's argument that in an age of terror, preemptive action may be the only effective means of safeguarding the nation.

"This is a country that is primed for action to do anything that will protect them," says Bob Boorstin, director of the WorldView Initiative of the VVAF. "The administration has succeeded in making the case to the public that [war with Iraq] is a necessary step as part of the war on terrorism."

That's not to say Americans don't have doubts about the war - and even about the extent to which it will make this country safer, at least in the short run. According to the latest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, 61 percent of the public believes that war with Iraq will actually "hurt" the safety of Americans in the US and abroad. But at the same time, 59 percent agree that war would help make the world safer from weapons of mass destruction.

This sense of uncertainty has created an overall attitude toward war with Iraq that might be described as "permissive consensus," says Benjamin Page, an expert on public opinion at Northwestern University. "The public's not saying, 'Hey, let's go to war.' But there's a sense that, well, the leaders can do it," and no one's going to object.

Deanna Neese, who works as a supervisor at Kroger's grocery store in Rome, Ga., offers a common response to the impending conflict. "I'm afraid," she says frankly.

She isn't convinced that attacking Iraq will reduce the risk of terrorism in the US: "I don't think anything we do is going to prevent them from doing more attacks," she says. She worries that war might make the country more vulnerable in other ways, including economically. "It's just a bad time," she sighs. "The economy is not really well, and if we go to war, it will not get better."

Still, she acknowledges that the attacks of 9/11 have altered her sense of the world - "we had a false sense of security." And in this new climate, she agrees the US has to be more vigilant. "I guess we really do need to watch what's going on over there," she says, and to take whatever steps are needed to make sure countries like Iraq "don't get weapons we won't be able to combat."

Of course, to many Americans, the reasons for war are not entirely clear. Many who oppose the war suspect it has less to do with public safety than with Mr. Bush's desire to finish the job his father started, or with other, tacit goals. "It's all about oil," speculates Lisa James, a Selma, Ala., police administrator.

Even many who support the war admit that they don't totally understand the issues involved. Although there's widespread agreement that everything changed after 9/11, there's also a sense that the country is still feeling its way through the next phase, without a clear road map. "It is a new time," says Jerry Herston, pastor at the First Methodist church in Lineville, Ala. "We have the feeling of being hated."

With threats so varied and hard to predict, many Americans say the public has little choice but to follow its leaders. "You have to trust" that the Bush administration knows more than the average citizen, and will lead the country down the best course, says Lamar Car-michael, a dentist in Lineville, Ala. On the other hand, he reflects: "I said that during the Vietnam War - and came to find out they didn't know a whole lot more than we did."

Confusion about the war's purpose is hardly unusual, says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "Six months after Pearl Harbor, half the people said they didn't have a clear idea what World War II was about," he notes.

And at this stage, many Americans say they would prefer simply to get the war over with, as a way of eliminating at least one form of uncertainty. "Everything is stuck," says Ciyan Khan, a Chicago cab driver. "People have stopped living their normal life."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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