Poll: Don't Go It Alone On Iraq

Mandy-Rae Cruickshank is surrounded by dolphins as she ascends in a scene from, "The Cove." (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions) AP Photo/Roadside Attractions

There's no question most Americans would like to see Saddam Hussein removed from power in Iraq, something a majority has wanted since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

But while they approve of U.S. military action to try to remove him, and believe war against Iraq is inevitable, most would prefer to wait -- for the U.N. to try to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, for President Bush to get the approval of Congress, and for U.S. allies to join in.

The public doesn't believe the Bush administration has clearly explained the U.S. position on invading Iraq, and there is no public consensus on whether the U.S. should adopt a broader policy of pre-emptive strikes.

68% approve of military action to try and remove Saddam Hussein, while 24% disapprove - figures that haven't changed much in the last year.

But majorities cite three reasons to hold back for now. More than six in ten believe the U.S. needs to wait for support from its allies, and for the approval of Congress before taking action. Nearly that many want to wait for the United Nations to try again to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

The Bush administration has yet to convince the public that the U.S. needs to act now. In fact, despite two recent speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney, most Americans think the administration has not yet clearly explained the U.S. position on Iraq. Nearly two-thirds say it has yet to do so, while only about one in four think it has.

HAS BUSH ADMINISTRATION CLEARLY EXPLAINED POSITION ON IRAQ?

Even among those who have heard or read a lot about the possibility of the U.S. attacking Iraq, two-thirds think the administration hasn't clearly explained its position. And while a majority of this group still approves of removing Saddam Hussein, support is lower in this group than it is among the less attentive public.

THE NUCLEAR THREAT

Despite doubts about the administration's public explanations, the public does believe that Iraq is a current, not a future, threat. Although administration officials have said that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, most Americans believe Iraq has already developed them. More than three-quarters of Americans think Iraq currently possesses weapons of mass destruction, and 62% of Americans think he has them and is also planning to use them against the U.S.

IRAQ AND WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

While these beliefs affect the public's willingness to approve of military action against Iraq, there is no consensus on adopting a pre-emptive strike policy in general - except where a nuclear attack against the United States is contemplated and, of course, when the possible enemy is Iraq.

Americans narrowly reject the argument that the U.S. should be able to attack any country it thinks might attack the U.S.; 47% oppose this policy, and 41% support it. However, there is more support for a pre-emptive strike if the U.S. government thinks another country might use nuclear weapons against the U.S. And there is specific support for attacking Iraq if the government believes it is planning a nuclear or a non-nuclear attack on the United States.

SUPPORT A U.S. FIRST STRIKE?

Men are more in favor of a first strike than women are. Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats and independents to support the general right of the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive strike against another country, although even Republicans are divided on this issue: 49% of them favor the idea, and 43% oppose it. When it comes to a pre-emptive strike against Iraq in particular, Republicans are substantially more likely to support the United States' right to attack first: 71% of them support it, compared to 51% of Democrats.

When asked if removing Saddam Hussein from power would be worth the potential loss of American life and the other costs of attacking Iraq, 54% said it would, while 35% said it would not. Earlier this summer, opinion on this question was evenly divided.

WHAT IF...?

In principle, two-thirds approve of U.S. military action to try to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Support drops, however, when the issues of military casualties and Iraqi civilians casualties are raised. And there is less support for action if it appears that the war would last for more than just a few months. Still, about half continue to favor U.S. action in each of the circumstances.

U.S. MILITARY ACTION TO REMOVE SADDAM HUSSEIN

Whatever their opinions about the Bush Administration or their feelings about deposing Saddam Hussein, Americans expect there will be fighting in Iraq, and that it won't be a short war. Nearly three in four Americas think U.S. war with Iraq is inevitable.

WILL U.S. END UP FIGHTING AGAINST IRAQ?

Only 41% think a war with Iraq is likely to be quick and successful. 53% say it is more likely to be long and costly. Of those who think a war would be quick, three-quarters approve of military action. Of those people who think it will be a long and costly involvement, 62% nonetheless approve of trying to remove Saddam Hussein.


This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 937 adults, interviewed by telephone September 2-5, 2002. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. Sampling error for subgroups may be higher.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

  • Brian Bernbaum

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