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Polls Show Bush Needs to Continue Courting Public Support for Iraq Action - 2002-10-09

Sometime in the next several days, the U.S. Congress is expected to give President Bush a strong vote of support for the possible use of military force against Iraq. But opinion polls suggest that the president would be wise to continue his efforts to boost support among the American public.

Even with the expectation of bipartisan support in the Congress, the president continues to hammer away at the Iraq issue in speeches around the country.

"I am not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein. Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events," Mr. Bush said.

Recent opinion polls suggest that is probably a good idea. While the public generally supports the notion that Saddam Hussein is a threat and may have to be dealt with militarily, several recent surveys indicate there are conditions on that support.

Pollster Andrew Kohut has conducted several surveys on Iraq for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The big qualifications, however, are a multilateral effort, which the public wants. It does not want American to do this alone. It wants our allies to join us and it would prefer and strongly favor having a U.N. resolution as part of the arrangement," Mr. Kohut said.

Several recent polls suggest some uneasiness with the possibility of a preemptive attack against Iraq without further evidence that its weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent threat to the United States.

Among those who remain to be convinced is Chicago commuter Chris Keys. "It is still no really clear to me that Iraq is a kind of threat that would warrant a preemptive first strike, which is something that I think would set a very dangerous precedent for other countries," he said.

Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University in Washington, has been closely monitoring the recent public opinion polls on Iraq. "Certainly the public will rally around our troops, if it comes to that. But we do have a very skeptical public," he said. "We have a public that has not fully bought into George Bush's rationale on preemption, the idea that we can strike by means of our own choosing at places of our own choosing even when there is not an imminent threat to the country."

While many Democrats in Congress support the president on Iraq, there are voices of opposition. Michigan Democrat David Bonior worries that a military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power would spark a backlash in the Arab world.

"And by rushing into war, we alone fuel more extremist passions against the United States, a whole new generation of terrorists bent on our demise. The costs (of sanctions) have already been horrendous and the question we have to ask ourselves is, 'is there not another way?'" Mr. Bonior said.

But with memories of the September 11 terrorist attacks still fresh, most lawmakers argue that the United States can no longer sit back and wait to be attacked before taking action.

Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana said, "Our responsibility in this chamber and in this government is to protect American citizens, to protect our democracy, our freedoms and our rights. And if we do not take the right actions now, we will suffer the consequences later."

That view seems to have widespread support in several recent surveys. But pollster Andrew Kohut says the public also wants the president to more fully explain his plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. "And give the public some assurances that this will be a manageable operation from the point of view of the U.S. military and also from the point of view of the endgame, that we have a plan to make sure that Iraq becomes a stable, peaceful country should we be able to rid it of Saddam Hussein," he said.

Polls indicate that Iraq could be a factor in the mid-term congressional elections on November 5, as both political parties battle for control of the Senate and House of Representatives.