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American Opposition to War with Iraq Still Largely Muted - 2002-10-11


The U.S. Congress has given President Bush authority to take military action against Iraq, if Baghdad fails to disarm. While the president says he still has not decided whether to use force in Iraq, the prospect of such action has drawn tens of thousands of people onto the streets in other countries. But in the United States, anti-war activists are struggling to mobilize opposition to any U.S. military action. Analysts say it may take actual involvement in a war to provoke strong public reaction either way.

Anti-war demonstrations in London and Rome in recent weeks brought tens-of-thousands of people out onto the streets. In contrast, American public opposition to possible war with Iraq has been relatively muted.

Hollywood celebrities headlined one of the largest rallies held in the United States, which drew an estimated 15,000 people to New York's Central Park in early October. It was organized by a group called Not in Our Name. But while there have been scattered protests across the country, they have not drawn the crowds organizers hoped for.

Not in Our Name is teaming up with another group, the ANSWER Coalition, to try to mobilize people to bring their message to the U.S. capital later this month. ANSWER Coalition co-director Brian Becker says politicians in Washington have been debating the issue in a vacuum. "There won't be real debate in Washington, until the people are on the streets," he said.

Recent U.S. public opinion polls show a slight majority of Americans support military action if the president decides it is necessary, but a majority opposes unilateral U.S. action.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, says the U.S. public appears ambivalent on the issue of possible war with Iraq in the wake of last year's September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing campaign against terrorism. "I think there's some inhibition about acting in public after September 11, acting in a dissentful way," he said. "And I think there's some reluctance to turn out for political manifestations, and some reluctance to be oppositional - some bad conscience about it, maybe. Or maybe, it's that, for many people, there's doubt in the virtue of the president's approach, but there's doubt also about their own doubt. And doubt about doubt isn't conducive to public turnouts."

In the battle to sway the public, other groups are seeking support for the Bush administration's stance on Iraq.

Empower America, a conservative public policy organization, is holding what it calls "teach-ins" at universities around the country to counter what the organization sees as strong and active dissent on college campuses. Seth Leibsohn, the group's policy director, says he feels American college students need to be better educated about all aspects of the U.S.-led war against terrorism, in which he says Iraq poses a threat.

Mr. Leibsohn says more than 200 students attended the group's first session at George Washington University. He says many asked dissenting questions, but were very respectful. He expects a tougher reception at Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley, two schools traditionally known for activism. "I expect Columbia and Berkeley will be much more heated," said Seth Leibsohn. "But we're going there because that's where the fight is. Columbia and Berkeley have been particularly angry in their dissent, strong in their dissent, loud in their dissent, so we want to go there."

Mr. Leibsohn says he is sure that support for the U.S. military effort would rise in a war-time setting, but he acknowledges that, at the same time, anti-war protests also would be likely to intensify.

Hamilton College history professor Maurice Isserman agrees, saying public sentiment could go either way, if the United States does become embroiled in a war in Iraq. "If things go well, if it's a quick war and an easy triumph, as Afghanistan proved to be, then I have no doubt this will prove to be a stellar foreign policy triumph for the Bush administration," he said. "If things don't go so well, if the war is prolonged, if several thousand or more Americans are killed, then I think public opinion could rapidly turn against the Bush administration."

The American public could also register its support or disapproval at the ballot box, in Congressional elections next month.