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Conflict With Iraq

Taking Military Action Against Iraq

A modest majority of Americans say they would support a ground invasion of Iraq. A stronger majority supports taking "military action" against Iraq, but this appears to reflect support for more limited actions than invasion. Support is lower, often dipping below half, when questions mention the possibility of US casualties, Iraqi casualties and an extended troop deployment in Iraq.

Modest Support for Invasion

A modest majority expresses support for an invasion of Iraq--the most likely scenario of any potential US military action against Iraq.

The most frequently asked question has been from CNN/USA Today, which has asked about "sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." On September 20-22 57% said they favored doing so, with 38% opposed. While this number went up after September 11, 2001, it has gradually eroded over 2002, dropping to 61% in June 2002 and dipping as low as 53% in August. [1]

Other polls have found similar results. In a late-September Newsweek poll, 50% favored "sending in large numbers of U.S. ground troops to ensure control of the country" while 42% were opposed. In mid-August, a CNN/Time poll found 51% support for "military action involving ground troops," with 40% opposed. In an early August 2002 ABC/Washington Post poll, 57% favored a "US invasion of Iraq with ground troops." In April 2002, a CNN/USA Today poll found 59% in favor of "sending U.S. ground troops to invade Iraq." [2]

Support is also fairly soft when it is specified that large numbers of troops will be needed for an Iraq invasion. Twice in the summer of 2002, NBC/Wall Street Journal polls asked:

Do you think that the United States should or should not take military action against Iraq and Saddam Hussein if it means committing as many as two hundred thousand American troops?

In late July, 54% felt the US should take such military action, while 31% felt it should not. In early June, only 41% favored action and 40% opposed it. [3]

A solid majority feels that invading Iraq would be morally justified. In an August CNN/ Time poll 65% said the US "would be morally justified if it sends troops to Iraq to remove Hussein from power." Only 26% did not think an attack would be justified. [4]

Support for More Limited Military Action Higher

Polls that ask about taking "military action" show somewhat higher levels of support - in most cases about two-thirds. By comparing responses to questions that specify more clearly what kind of action would be involved it appears that this higher level of support is for more limited forms of action such as air strikes or Special Forces operations.

ABC/Washington Post has asked about taking "military action against Iraq to force Saddam Hussein form power." On September 14 68% favored doing so. Support reached a high of 78% in November and then went as low as 56% in August.

In response to similar questions, others have found support ranging from 58-68%. When Fox News asked September 24-25, 58% supported such action--down from 66% at the beginning of the month. Newsweek found 63% on September 26-27. CBS News found support of 68% September 22-23. Pew found 64% September 16.

Polls in mid-to-late August - prior to Bush's UN speech - had shown support to be substantially lower. For example, the ABC News question was more than ten points lower (56%), and Newsweek was five points lower (62%). A Los Angeles Times poll also showed support at 59%.

Even with the recent rebound in support, virtually all the recent polls are lower than earlier highs. As mentioned, ABC/Washington Post polls recorded 78% in favor in November 2001. Also a Gallup poll found 74% support that same month; and Fox News found 74% support in January 2002. Indeed, many of these polls found support around the 70% level until early August 2002. Similarly, In June 2002, a survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found 75% favoring the "use of US troops…to overthrow Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq." [5]

Support for "military action" appears to signify support for actions less ambitious than invasion. This is not only indicated by the fact that when invasion is specified support is approximately 10 points lower; support is also higher when more limited operations are specified. A late September Newsweek poll found very strong majorities in favor of the lighter alternatives of "sending in commandos or Special Forces to capture Saddam Hussein or work with local anti-Saddam forces" (72%) and "using air strikes against Iraq without any troops on the ground" (67%). However only 50% favored "sending in large numbers of U.S. ground troops to ensure control of the country."

Similarly, in a March 2002 CNN/USA Today poll 67% favored "military airstrikes but no US ground troops," while just 46% favored "using US ground troops to invade Iraq." [6]

Support Potentially Higher if Focus is on Disarmament

Some evidence suggests that support for military action would be higher if the focus of US efforts was disarmament, rather than regime change. A mid-September 2002 CNN/USA Today poll found that although a majority (58%) supports sending US ground troops to the Persian Gulf to "remove Saddam Hussein from power," a more robust majority of 65% supports the use of troops "to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, but not necessarily to remove Saddam Hussein from power." [7]

Also, if the US first seeks to achieve disarmament through an inspection process and Iraq ultimately fails to cooperate, support for taking military action would be higher (see "Disarmament Through Inspections").

Potential for American Casualties

Certainly one major consideration with a large-scale ground attack is the possibility of substantial US casualties. When asked to suppose that large numbers of casualties would result from an attack on Iraq, support for an invasion or for military action declines by 11-20%.

This dynamic was found in a question on invasion. In the August ABC/Washington Post poll in which 57% supported invasion, those who favored it were then asked, "What if that caused a significant number of U.S. military casualties?" Seventy percent of the group continued to support an invasion, but 26% switched to an opposing stance. Thus, out of the total sample, just 40% favored an invasion if there were substantial US casualties, while a 51% majority was opposed.

The same was also found in questions on "military action." In August 2002, a Fox News poll asked the 69% who favored military action, "Would you support or oppose the military action even if it means thousands of American soldiers' lives would be lost?" Fifty-two percent of the total sample continued to support military action (37% opposed). In April 2002, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked a similar set of questions, and similarly, found a 16% decline in support after asking supporters to assume "it would require a major commitment of American ground forces with a possibility of a significant number of casualties," leaving only 41% in favor of military action. [8]
A few polls have raised the issue of casualties in a stand-alone question, rather than as a follow-up to a more general question. In a September 2-5 CBS/New York Times poll, only half (50%) supported "taking military action against Iraq" when asked to suppose that "substantial U.S. military casualties" would result from the fighting; 38% opposed taking action in this case. This is compared to 68% who said, in the same poll, that they would support military action. However, on September 22-23 this gap narrowed, with 57% ready to support military action even with substantial casualties, as compared to the same 68% favoring military action.
In mid-September 2002, a Pew poll showed the public similarly divided - 48% in favor and 36% opposed - over taking "military action to end Saddam Hussein's rule, even if it meant that US forces might suffer thousands of casualties." This represents a slight increase in support from a Pew poll taken prior to Bush's UN speech, when the public was divided - 42% support and 41% opposed. In January 2002, there was fairly firm majority support: 56% said they would favor military action, even if there were thousands of casualties, while only 31% were opposed. [9]
Even when posed a question that assumes military success in "removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," just a modest majority (54-57%) said it would be "worth the potential loss of American life and the other costs of attacking Iraq," while 33-35% said it would not be worth it (CBS/New York Times, September 2-5 and 22-23). [10]

Potential for Iraqi Casualties

Interestingly, Americans show a similar level of concern over the possibility of large numbers of Iraqi civilian deaths. When asked to suppose "U.S. military action in Iraq would result in substantial Iraqi civilian casualties," support also softened quite a bit. In that case, 49% would favor military action, with 40% opposed - virtually identical to the results obtained when asked to suppose "substantial US military casualties" (CBS/New York Times, September 2001). [11]

Potential for Extended Troop Deployment

Finally, Americans are divided as to whether the US should take action against Iraq if it would require - as is almost certain - a long-term commitment of large numbers of forces within the country. A September 2002 CBS/New York Times poll found only a 49% plurality in favor of military action if it "meant that the US would be involved in a war there for months or even years." Forty-four percent were opposed, given that scenario.

Additionally, a late August 2002 Gallup poll which found a bare majority (53%) in favor of "sending ground troops to the Persian Gulf" asked that group to suppose "that meant the U.S. would have a significant number of ground troops in combat situations for at least a year." Hearing that, support for sending in troops dropped to 41%, with 51% opposed. [12]



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