Americans spent last week thinking about whether to buy duct tape. As their local hardware stores jacked up the prices, though, they wondered if having it was really going to make them any safer. Badly as they wanted it, was it worth the added cost?
Funny thing, they've been asking the same questions about a war with Iraq.
As things stand today, Americans think the price of a war might include at least two troubling add-ons: one, an emboldened al Qaeda; and two, an alienated set of allies and U.N. partners. The first makes a lot of people leery. But the thought of alienating the allies is making Americans pretty uneasy, too, and that looks like one price they're not yet willing to pay.
Not, at least, just to get Saddam. Make no mistake, Americans want him out: two-thirds say so, and a whopping 85 percent believe he's hiding weapons, according to the latest CBS News Poll. But Saddam is still public enemy number now. It's al Qaeda and their threat of terror that's named by 51 percent of Americans as their most-feared menace, compared to just 28 percent who think Iraq poses the main danger.
Whether the two are really connected or not -- and, perhaps, especially if they are -- Americans fear going after Saddam will make them less safe. 59 percent think a war will lead to more terrorism in the U.S., and just 12 percent think it will lower that threat -- quite the opposite of the war's supposed payoff.
The recent terror alerts only underscored these fears for a lot of people. Americans who said last week's alerts made them feel nervous -- a group that accounts for 40 percent of the population and, probably, a lot of duct tape sales -- were more likely than those who stayed calm to think that a war would increase terrorism.
So he's something they might put off a bit. On matters of timing, Americans are torn: CBS News polls show that half think the Iraq threat demands military action right away, and half say that the danger is real, but can still be contained for now. (Unlike military planners, they probably aren't thinking about desert heat and moon phases.)
This lack of urgency doesn't stop Americans from generally supporting the President on the matter, but it does help explain why there is no clamor yet to circumvent the stalemate at the U.N. In fact, just the opposite.
Despite the broad support for using force, nearly two-thirds of Americans still want to wait for the allies to sign on to a war effort before taking any action -- a sentiment which has not changed much since last fall. Nearly 60 percent, including almost 40 percent of Republicans, also say the U.S. should wait for the U.N.'s approval before heading off to action.
This is not, however, because Americans love the U.N. or place great faith in weapons inspections. Only about half say the U.N. is doing a good job handling the Iraq standoff, and of the people who think Saddam is hiding weapons, most (58 percent) also doubt that Hans Blix and company will be able to uncover that cache.
The public's show of patience is partly about keeping the U.S. in a respected position, and avoiding international anger. It's a practical concern: how Americans perceive their standing in the world is linked to fears about terrorism.
Among Americans who think their country has recently become less respected in the world (sadly, that's a majority of people), almost seventy percent of them think another terrorist attack against the nation is likely soon, and they're not apt to think the U.S. is making a lot of progress, overall, in the war on terror. But of the people who think the nation's standing in the world is better or unchanged of late, almost half think new attacks are unlikely, and nearly all of them say the war on terror is progressing well.
It's also about sharing the military burdens. 80 percent of Americans think a war will take several months, at least, not just a few weeks. Of those among them who nonetheless support military action, 60 percent want to wait to get the allies on board before starting. Less than half of them care to wait for formal U.N. approval, though. This group isn't looking for legal mandates -- it's looking for backup under fire.
In light of this, the upcoming events at the U.N. could be a critical juncture for public opinion. As events build, we're bound to see even more pundits and politicos on both sides of the war debate bandy about poll numbers, each claiming the public is either solidly for or firmly against a war. But neither rings quite true. The bigger picture is that Americans are acting, good consumers that they are, more like savvy shoppers -- they want something, but they want to make the best deal possible to get it.
And remember that what they're really after is safety, and a safer world. They suspect that getting that is a lot more complicated than a roll of duct tape or even a regime change. So if they think the price looks high, they're bound to ask a lot of questions before investing in either.