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Conflict With Iraq

Iraq's Possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and the ability and readiness to use them against targets in the US. If disarming Iraq of these weapons through an inspection process is not an option, given the choice between dealing with this threat through deterrence or preemptive military action, a majority chooses the latter.

Apparently an overwhelming majority of Americans thinks that Iraq already has the capability to use chemical or biological weapons against US targets. Asked in the September PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll, "Do you think that Saddam Hussein does or does not have the capability to use chemical or biological weapons against targets in the US?" an overwhelming 79% said that he does. [1]

Questions that ask about Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction-using that term-find somewhat lower but still very high numbers believing that Iraq possesses them, perhaps because for some people the term means nuclear weapons. In August 2002, a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today found that a 55% majority saying Iraq "currently has weapons of mass destruction" and another 39% believe Iraq "is trying to develop these weapons." This is unchanged from February 2002 when 95% felt Iraq either already has (55%) or is trying to obtain (40%) such weapons. However, when asked simply, "To the best of your knowledge, do you think Iraq currently possesses weapons of mass destruction, or doesn't it have those?" an overwhelming majority -- 80% -- said it does have them, while just 11% said it does not (CBS News, February 2002). [2]

Not only does a vast majority feel Iraq has or is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, but a strong majority also believes he would use those weapons to attack the United States. In the September 2002 CBS/New York Times poll cited above, among the 80% who believe Iraq has WMD, 78% believe Iraq "is planning to use [them] against the United States." This means that 62% of all respondents believe Iraq has WMD and is planning to hit the US with them. Also, in the August 2002 Gallup question noted above, 83% of those who believe Iraq has developed or is developing such weapons would use them on the US; just 15% of this group felt that Iraq would not use them against the US. Thus, more than three-quarters of the total sample (78%) said Iraq would employ weapons of mass destruction against the US. [3]

It is no surprise, therefore, that nearly 9 in 10 feel Iraq's attempted development of WMD is a critical threat to the US. In a mid-2002 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 86% said "Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction" is a "critical threat" to the US; another 11% felt the threat was "important but not critical"; and just 1% thought the threat unimportant. In a February 2002 CNN/USA Today poll, more than 80% of those who thought Iraq already has or is developing WMD felt that fact does or would constitute a "direct threat" to the United States. [4]

When a time factor is implied, a smaller but still very strong majority views Iraq as a looming danger. In a September 2002 Newsweek poll, two-thirds (66%) feel that "Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq poses an imminent threat to United States interests"; just 27% felt that was not the case. [5]

This, of course, raises the critical question of how the US should act if the process of disarmament through weapons inspections fails. In light of this perceived condition of vulnerability, should the US deal with this threat by seeking to deter Iraqi use of such weapons through a threat of massive retaliation, or should the US take the risk of suffering an attack against its US cities and proceed to take military action to remove the threat, lest it become even greater in the future? The September 2002 PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll sought to find out how Americans would respond if disarmament were not presented as an option, and they had to choose between an approach based on deterrence or preemptive military action in a context in which US vulnerability to attacks was a given. Respondents were asked: "Suppose the government found out that Iraq has the capability to release chemical or biological weapons against American cities. How do you think the US should respond?" They were then presented two arguments. The argument based on a deterrence approach went:

The US should not attack Iraq because this would make it almost certain that Iraq would use these weapons against American cities. Instead, the US should deter the Iraqi government from using these weapons by warning that if it does it will be destroyed.

It was endorsed by just 42%. The argument based on taking military action went:

The US should attack Iraq even if there is a risk that it will use these weapons against American cities, because if we do not act, Iraq will develop an even greater capability to threaten the US in the future.

It was endorsed by a clear majority of 56%.

Thus it appears that if disarmament efforts through inspections fail, Americans are more likely to shift their preference to supporting military action rather than relying on deterrence through threat of massive retaliation, even though doing so would make them vulnerable to attacks on American cities. [6]



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