October 10, 2002

Americans Thinking About Iraq, But Focused on the Economy

Commentary by Lee Feinstein, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

A sizable majority of Americans continue to support a war to oust Saddam Hussein, and most seem to believe the worst about possible links between the Iraqi leader and the Al Qaeda terrorists, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The poll was conducted before President Bush’s widely watched Oct. 7 television address in which he made his case for military action to the nation. The president’s speech, however, hit many of the themes that seem to resonate strongly with the public as measured by the poll’s results, particularly the president’s discussion of “high-level links” between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the status of Iraq’s nuclear program.

When asked the question Congress is currently debating ­ whether the main goal of military action should be ridding Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction or ousting him ­ Americans come down strongly on the side of removal. But they are more divided when asked whether the United States should go ahead with military action against Saddam if he were to cooperate with weapons inspectors.

Americans give high marks when asked to rate how the president and Congress are handling the situation. At the same time, the public by an overwhelming majority says the positions taken by elected leaders have more to do with politics as usual than the substantive concerns raised by Saddam Hussein.

An Iraq-Al Qaeda Connection?

As in previous surveys, a solid majority (62%) of Americans say they support military action to “end Saddam Hussein’s rule,” about the same percentage indicating support for military action last month.

The Pew results indicate that the imputation of an Iraq-9/11 link strongly resonates with a majority of Americans, even though most analysts inside and outside government have disputed the suggestion of a direct link, and earlier suggestions by administration officials asserting such a link have been muted. Two-thirds of those surveyed (66%) say they believe “Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the September 11 attacks.”

Similarly, a large majority of those surveyed believe Saddam is on the threshold of having a nuclear weapons capability. Two-thirds of those surveyed (65%) say they believe Saddam is “close to having” nuclear weapons, and 14% believe he “already has” them. A recently released report of the CIA, though far from reassuring, indicates Saddam may still have some distance to travel. It says Iraq now lacks the weapons-grade material needed for a nuclear bomb; is “unlikely” to produce enough weapons-grade materials for a nuclear bomb “until the last half of the decade”; but could produce a nuclear weapon “within a year” if it could find “fissile material from abroad.”

The public’s assessment of Saddam’s nuclear capabilities is in keeping with its strong views on the need to oust him as well as his weapons of mass destruction. When asked if Saddam “can be disarmed but left in power, or do you think he has to be removed from power,” 85% favor getting rid of the Iraqi leader.

The Likelihood of War

Although most Americans favor military action against Iraq, the poll suggests most do not believe war is inevitable, and support for military action declines under certain circumstances.

Of those questioned, most (56%) say they believe “war still might be avoided.” Moreover, of those who support military action, 43% say they would oppose “using military force against Iraq,” if Saddam cooperates with “full and complete weapons inspections.”

Conversely, 39% of those who say they now oppose military action to oust Saddam say they would change their minds if the Iraqi leader refuses to cooperation.

How Are they Doing?

The survey results indicate most Americans give reasonably high marks to the president and Congress for their handling of the debate over Iraq. Most Americans (56%) approve of the president’s handling of the “situation with Iraq.” About a third of Americans say the president is “moving too quickly” on Iraq, but half (51%) say he is “giving careful thought to the issue.” Congress’s ratings are comparable.

Despite these generally high marks, most Americans question the motivation of their elected leaders on Iraq. Among those who favor military action, three-quarters say they believe most officials who oppose war “are taking their positions for political reasons.” Only 16% say these politicians are “sincere in their beliefs.” Opponents of military action hold similarly cynical views of politicians who favor war in Iraq.

As has been the case in the past, those surveyed rate Republicans as better able to address national security issues. The GOP was rated as the party that “could do a better job” making “wise decisions” about Iraq by a margin of 46%-30%, and the Republican Party has a similar advantage when it comes to “dealing with the terrorist threat at home.”

Conclusion

Unlike the debate over the first war against Iraq in 1991, which was delayed until after the 1990 midterm elections, this debate is taking place just before the election.

In this political season, Americans are both skeptical of their leaders’ political motives but, in the aftermath of 9/11, in a mood to believe the worst about reports of Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda and the status of its weapons program. That is an unusual combination, which may challenge the usual calculations about the minor role foreign policy plays in national elections.