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Conflict With Iraq

General Attitudes Toward Iraq

Most Americans take an extremely dim view of Iraq-probably more so than of any other country. Overwhelming majorities believe the US has a vital interest in what happens in Iraq and see the US as threatened by Iraq. A strong majority continues to support economic sanctions on Iraq.

Polls show that Americans have an extremely negative view of Iraq and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein - almost certainly the most negative perceptions of any country or leader. In a Gallup question asked several times over the past few years, nearly 9 in 10 have consistently rated Iraq as at least "somewhat unfavorable." In all but one instance, a majority rated Iraq as "very unfavorable." In the Gallup polls, fewer than 10 percent have given Iraq a very or somewhat favorable rating since at least 1996. In the most recent assessment (February 2002), just 6% rated Iraq favorably - lower than all others, including "axis of evil" cohorts Iran (11% favorable) and North Korea (23%). [1] With regard to Iraq, when respondents are given just two options - favorable or unfavorable - responses are likewise overwhelmingly negative. Iraq's favorable and unfavorable ratings are virtually the same both before and after the September 11 attacks. [2]

Other types of questions have also revealed extremely negative responses about Iraq. Every four years since 1994, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) has taken 'thermometer' ratings of Iraq, asking respondents to rate the country on a scale from 0 to 100 degrees, with 100 most favorable. On this scale, the mean ratings have ranged between 23 and 25 degrees, with nearly 70% rating Iraq 30 degrees or below. [3] Gallup has also used a scale system, with ratings ranging between +5 and -5, with +5 the most favorable. In early 2001, the mean response was -3.2, with nearly 7 in 10 rating Iraq -3 or lower. [4] When asked in a February 2002 CNN/USA Today survey whether or not they would describe Iraq as "evil," 82% said they would; just 13% said they would not. [5]

Attitudes are even more negative about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In polls by Fox News, Gallup and American Viewpoint dating from mid-2002 back to late 1998, unfavorable responses have been in the near-unanimous range of 96% to 97%. Favorable attitudes ranged from just 1% to 2%. On CCFR's thermometer scale Hussein scored a mean of just 8 degrees in 2002 and 12 degrees in 1998. [6]

Vital Interests At Stake

An overwhelming majority thinks US vital interests are at stake in Iraq. In CCFR's 2002 survey, more than three-fourths of respondents (76%) said the US has a "vital interest" in Iraq based on "political, economic, or security reasons." Only 21% felt that is not the case. In June 1999, Potomac Associates and Opinion Dynamics offered four responses, but came up with similar results. At that time, 69% said he US had a "very strong vital interest" (36%) or "fairly strong vital interest" in Iraq. Twenty-seven percent felt the US had "not much" or no vital interests there. [7]

Iraq Seen as Threat

A variety of polls show that an overwhelming majority feels Iraq poses a threat to the United States, and a majority now feels it is a "major" or "very serious" threat, which is substantially higher than in recent years. However, when compared to other countries it is not seen as the biggest threat.

The most recent surveys find about 8 in 10 saying that Iraq poses a threat to the US or to US national security. When asked in an August 2002 ABC/Washington Post poll simply whether "Iraq does or does not pose a threat to the United States" 79% said it did. Other questions have also tried to gauge how much of a threat Iraq poses. In May 2002, a Time/CNN poll showed that 84% believed Iraq to be a very serious (59%) or moderately serious (25%) threat to the US. Similarly, in December 2001, a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies poll found 86% thought Iraq to be a "serious" threat (56%) or "moderate" threat (30%) to US national security. In March 2001, a Yankelovich Partners poll found virtually the same percentage (85%) classifying Iraq as an "extreme threat" or "somewhat of a threat." [8]

Polls that offer just three response options, such as Fox and Pew polls that ask whether Iraq is "a major threat, a minor threat, or no threat at all," reveal very similar results. In July 2002, Fox found 55% saying Iraq is a major threat, another 35% saying it is a minor threat (90% total), and just 4% responding that Iraq is not a threat. When a May 2002 Pew poll asked about the threat of "Saddam Hussein's continued rule" in Iraq, the responses were roughly the same: 58%, 29% and 6%. [9]

Other question varieties find fairly consistent responses as well. An Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor survey asked respondents to rank the "extent" to which Iraq is a threat on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 meaning "no threat" and 7 meaning "very serious threat". In February 2002, 44% rated the level of threat as a 7, and 81% rated it a 3 or higher. [10] (For questions related to perceptions of threat of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, see "Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction.")

Perception of Iraq as a serious threat appears to have risen substantially after the September 11 attacks. In the 1999 and 2000 Time/CNN polls, about one-third of respondents chose both "very serious" and "moderately serious" to describe the threat posed by Iraq. Yet, in the 2002 survey, the percentage choosing "very serious" nearly doubled to 59%. Meanwhile, the percentage saying Iraq was "just a slight threat" or "not a threat" fell from a combined 31% in 1999 to just 14% in 2002 (see data in note above).

Though about eight out of ten Americans say Iraq is a threat, when they are asked to compare various states' potential as military threats, Iraq is not seen as the prime military threat to the US. China has held that position for several years now, and has maintained it after September 11. A Fox News question that asks about the "greatest military threat to the US today" found in February 2002 that China still tops the list at 28%, with Iraq a close second at 23%. No other country is in double-digits. This is remarkably consistent with results from February 2001, when 30% cited China and 24%. [11]

Economic Sanctions Still Favored

To keep the Iraqi threat in check, strong majorities favor maintaining economic sanctions against the Iraqi regime. In CCFR's mid-2002 survey, two-thirds (66%) favored the "use of economic sanctions" against Iraq; 27% were opposed. This is virtually unchanged from the results CCFR obtained in 1998: 67% in favor and 22% opposed. In the 2002 poll, 72% also opposed "having trade relations" with Iraq. Also, in Gallup surveys taken in 1999 and 1998, very strong majorities also favored maintaining economic sanctions until Iraq complies with the UN resolutions that stemmed from the Gulf War. [12] However, when asked to choose between sanctions and military force to deal with Hussein and Iraq, majorities have preferred the use of force since mid-1998 (see "Invading Iraq").

When arguments for and against sanctions are included in the question, support for sanctions remains robust. In October 2001, just weeks after the September 11 attacks, a Pew question told respondents, "Supporters say the sanctions restrain Saddam Hussein and Iraqi government. Opponents say the sanctions hurt the ordinary people in Iraq." It then asked whether they favored or opposed lifting the sanctions. Based on these arguments, 60% opposed lifting the sanctions, while 27% favored doing so. Earlier, in March 2001, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had found the public very divided as to the "best approach" President Bush should take on sanctions, given the fact that most US allies were no longer enforcing them. At that time, 43% wanted the US to "continue trying to enforce broad economic sanctions", but an equivalent 42% felt the US should "reduce the economic sanctions to a few key items in the belief that they will be more effective because allies will go along with them." Of course, while Americans always prefer acting in concert with allies, this divided response was obtained before the September 11 attacks and the renewed focus on going after Iraq. [13]

Finally, it is important to note here that just because Americans take a very negative view of Iraq and want to continue enforcing sanctions against the current regime, a majority does not believe we should have no diplomatic contact with Iraq. In the 2002 CCFR poll, 49% favored having diplomatic relations with Iraq, just slightly more than the 47% who opposed doing so. [14]



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