February 14, 2003

Powell Reversed the Trend but not the Tenor of Public Opinion

The American public reacted very favorably to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council. The flurry of polling conducted over the past week indicates that he made convincing points to the American public about the dangers posed by Saddam’s Hussein’s regime. Powell and President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, have stemmed the tide of growing doubts about whether the U.S. should use military force, if necessary.

Increased margins of support for using force were apparent in six of the seven nationwide polls conducted last week. Further, almost all measures of opinion moved in the direction that must have pleased the Bush Administration. There is even increased support for unilateral military action against Iraq.

A closer look at the polls, however, reveals that Powell’s performance did not fundamentally change underlying opinion about war with Iraq. Americans continue to qualify their support for the war in number of significant ways: First, majorities continue to insist on international backing. Most would prefer to wait to gain allied support, rather than moving quickly. While the public rejects open-ended weapons inspections, they want to give the inspectors considerably more time than does the Bush administration.

Second, the public continues to worry about the degree of difficulty involved in the military campaign and worry even more about dealing with Iraq after Saddam. Even though Iraq’s military is weaker than before the Gulf War, concerns about the duration of the war and its aftermath are much greater now than in January 1991. Concerns about casualties are just as great as they were in 1991 and worries about domestic terrorism are greater.

Third, sizable minorities continue to perceive the administration as pushing too hard and too fast for war, and believe it has not done enough to pursue diplomatic measures. The public gives Bush 43 somewhat lower grades than Bush 41 for diplomacy. In the end, this could undercut the current administration’s position, if things don’t go well either at the U.N. in coming weeks or in Iraq itself.

Current levels of public support for the use of force are now about the same as they were prior to the first Gulf War but well below what they were just before the campaign in Afghanistan. But the biggest difference between opinion then and now centers on the lingering question of an international blessing for military action.

During the first Gulf War, this was not a significant factor, because the U.N. gave its unequivocal approval weeks before the fighting began. But recent surveys by ABC News/Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and NBC News all find just a slim majority in favor of going to war without a U.N. blessing. Friday’s report by Hans Blix — the reaction of the administration and the U.N. — will be crucial to resolving this tension in public opinion.


President Bush’s State of the Union address and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council had an impact on basic support for the use of force in Iraq among the general public. In five of six polls where comparisons are possible, support for military action increased.

Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council convinced a majority of the U.S. public that Iraq is an imminent threat, and a majority also felt that there was new evidence in his talk.

As with the basic indicators of support for military action, more people now believe that the Bush administration has made a convincing case about the need for using force against Iraq.

But Powell’s argument that Saddam has links to al Qaeda was the least persuasive.

Support for quick action in Iraq increased after the State of the Union speech and Powell’s address, but at least half still favor waiting before acting.

And a clear majority still insists that the U.S. gain international support before using military force.

More people think the Bush administration is trying hard to reach a diplomatic solution in Iraq, but the public is still divided.

A much larger percentage of the public believes that a war in Iraq will be a long war than was the case prior to the start of the Persian Gulf War.

Most think it will be difficult to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

And a big majority believes that it will be difficult to create a stable government in Iraq once Hussein is gone.

Support for military action in Iraq, while high, is still considerably lower than the support for military action just prior to the start of the war in Afghanistan.