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Public Opinions of Iraq

January 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For a look at how all of this is playing across the country, we’re joined by Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Andy, what do your latest surveys and samplings show us about citizens’ sympathies about war?

ANDREW KOHUT: What they have been showing for sometime, this is a very tough decision for the American public. They feel vulnerable and they feel that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous man and he’s got to go. There is no consensus as there was in Afghanistan when 70 or 80 percent said we have to do it and all the polls were in agreement. What we find is 68 percent, and we have a slide giving qualified support for the idea of using potentially using military force against Saddam Hussein. But one of the qualifications is we’ve got to do it with allies. We say well, should we do it even if allies don’t join us, we get down to 26 percent. That’s one of the most important qualifications the public has consistently said, we have to do this as part of an international coalition.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the status of what’s being turned up by the inspectors in Iraq? Is that looming large in people’s minds as they follow the story?

ANDREW KOHUT: They’re following the story. It was one of the highest rated stories this month, and the American public, we tested some scenarios. And when we find — we ask people what should we do if we find that weapon inspectors find that Iraq is hiding weapons, 76 percent say I’d favor the use of force. But when we get to the complicated thing that there are no weapons but Iraq can’t prove otherwise, there are no weapons, but the inspectors can’t give us assurances that there aren’t any weapons, we only get 29 or 25 percent. So the public wants some real hard evidence as a basis on which to commit and risk the lives of American men and women. The American public doesn’t go easily into war. And it recognizes the gravity, it feels threatened, but it wants to see– it wants to see more and it wants to see the president make the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Do people think that they’ve been getting the kind of evidence that you’ve just been talking about?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, one of the things that the polls have also shown, our most recent poll has shown is that the percentage of people thinking the president has made the case, has explained to them clearly why it is necessary to use force has gone down. 42 percent in our recent poll, a poll in early January was as high as 52 percent when President Bush addressed the U.N. in September, which was better than 37 percent, but these numbers are going in the wrong direction. There has been a lot of selling by the administration, but the president hasn’t sold to the American public… he hasn’t made the sale to the public, basically.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s interesting with all the passage of time, the number of people who say that the case hasn’t been made has hardly budged. It’s about what it was six, seven months ago.

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right. There’s no conviction here. And you need conviction. You need conviction to go to war.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re told by various members of the administration that time is running out for Hussein and the Iraqi government and we’re expecting, in the next couple of days, a report from the inspection teams under Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei. Do people think there should be a certain date by which their work ends?

ANDREW KOHUT: As this Washington Post-ABC Poll shows, 54 percent say, yeah, we should set a limit but 43 percent say we should give them as much time as they want. Other questions suggest the public wants to be patient. The public thinks that the Bush administration is pushing too hard and too fast for war. And we asked a question in our last poll which said, has President Bush made up his mind, has the administration made up their mind or waiting for the report? And 61 percent said they’ve made up their mind. 37 percent said they’re waiting for these reports. So there is the impression on the part of the public, the administration wants to do Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Now this is something that’s changed a lot from month to month? I mean you look at how these numbers play out over time. Have there been big swings depending on what is happening in the news or what the administration is saying?

ANDREW KOHUT: We’ve had some narrowing of support and expanding of support but the support is so soft, there is a lot of variability between polls that when you call people back – you call them one day they give you one answer the other day another answer. They keep changing their mind. That was not the case when we were talking about Afghanistan and going after the Taliban and al-Qaida where there was consensus. We don’t have consensus. The only way we’ll get it is if the president makes the case and give hard evidence or else we’re going to do it without public conviction.

RAY SUAREZ: As you start to teases different groups of Americans out of the numbers, is there high variability: Republicans and Democrats, men and women, regions of the country, family income?

ANDREW KOHUT: Sure, the Republican Party is more inclined to follow their leader George Bush. Women, there’s always a gender gap in the use of force. Women are less inclined to use force. Older people are less inclined to use force. But these things are all pretty typical of what we see when we ask people about, the American public, about the use of force. And I think the bigger issue is that there’s not a good deal of consensus here. And the levels of opposition and potential opposition, if the operation takes place and doesn’t go well, are considerable. There’s some real risks.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s interesting that you say that older people are less inclined to want to use force. That would seem to be almost counterintuitive, given the sentiment in like the Vietnam War, let’s say.

ANDREW KOHUT: By that, there was… there was, in Vietnam, going back to then, younger people were more against war and more for war. Older people are always more temperate, always more reluctant. It’s young men who fight wars, not old men.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Kohut, good to see.

ANDREW KOHUT: You good to see you.