Polls, Powell And The Iraq Campaign

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on "Face the Nation," October 18, 2009.
CBS
Americans have thought for a long time that a war on Saddam is justified. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says they just aren't convinced it's smart.

It's been a momentous two weeks in the pre-war with Iraq.

The weapons inspectors made their report to the United Nations. President Bush made his case in the State of the Union. And Secretary Powell made the mother-of–all-cases back at the United Nations.

And the sad loss of the Columbia pierced through the incessant Showdown with Saddam chatter that we've been inundated with for months – dramatically, graphically reminding us of what it means to see lives sacrificed and to ask, again, "was it worth it?"

Under this deluge of news, analysis and spin, it strikes me that public opinion about dealing with Iraq hasn't changed significantly. By some measures, it hasn't changed for a year.

One exception: a lot of people this week were reminded of how much they wish Colin Powell were president.

A CBS News poll taken after Powell's U.N. uber-speech showed 70 percent now "approved" of military action against Iraq.

If that seems like overwhelming support, hold on.

First of all, the level of support really hasn't changed much for the past year. Support for military action was at 64 percent before Powell's speech, 70 percent in early November 2002, and up at 74 percent in February 2002, before the war drums were banging.

Americans have, in their guts, been up for nuking Saddam since 1991.

Countering this, however, is a feeling just as deep that the U.S. shouldn't go it alone. In this latest poll, 63 percent think the U.S. should wait for U.N. approval; 31 percent want to act now.

We are rightly worried about not having enough enthusiastic international support for Bush's Iraq policy. Seems to me that a lack of domestic support is as great a concern.

Why is domestic is public opinion so steady and so wary?

One key reason is that Americans didn't really need Powell's evidence to be convinced that Saddam Hussein is an evildoer who has evil weapons and evil partners. A CBS News/ New York Times poll from January showed that 85 percent believed that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Only 4 percent didn't believe it.

There is a big difference, well recognized by civilian observers – less so by the Bush administration, between thinking that military action is justified and thinking that it is necessary and prudent.

CBS News polls back that up. On the day after Powell's presentation, 56 percent thought there was "enough evidence to justify military action now." But just 37 percent believed the U.S. "should take military action now." 57 percent wanted to give inspectors more time.

Yes, most Americans believe we'd be well justified to blow Saddam to smithereens. They don't need Hans Blix to convince them. They know that Saddam has used chemical weapons against Kurds and Iran, that he invaded Kuwait, that he sent missiles into Israel.

But no, they're not convinced Kenosha and Bangor will be demonstrably safer if we vanquish Saddam, or that it's worth risking our troops and Iraq's neighbors to biological and chemical weapons or that the region would be more stable.

In the January CBS News poll, 62 percent thought that the threat of terror would increase if the U.S. takes military action against Iraq.

To my mind, Powell' s most effective rebuttal to these entirely legitimate concerns had nothing to do with evidence. "Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world." Our imaginations remain limited in conjuring the bad things that can befall us.

The other big concern for Americans is that they want to see more support from other countries. It's not that there's an expectation that the U.S. will have to assume fewer costs and risks. And I don't think that there's great concern for an abstract notion of "legitimacy."

I think it's simply that people wonder what other countries – emphatically not France – know that we don't know? Why have they made different calculations about their interests than we have? Are we chumps?

Many felt the same way about Colin Powell. Why wasn't he on board? When he came on board, people felt better, not enough to transform public opinion, but perhaps enough to sway a big slice of the chattering class.

Two days before the Columbia was lost, a Blackhawk helicopter crashed near the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, killing four American soldiers.

The deaths were not big news. Since the fall of 2001, 47 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan

In the rush of covering the Columbia disaster, I had forgotten about the Blackhawk crash.

I was reminded of it only Monday morning, by an editorial in The Washington Post that made a simple connection I had not thought of. "The four U.S. soldiers who died in the accident, like the seven astronauts who perished Saturday, were volunteers, taking on risks they understood well in service of their country…Thousands risk their lives every day in that distant country and in the skies over Iraq, and thousands more may soon be asked to do so."

As we look ahead to a possible war with Iraq, we look back on the Columbia disaster and are reminded of how harsh and unforgiving American hindsight is.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer