JIM LEHRER: How the talk of war is playing in the public opinion polls, as seen by Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, and Steven Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.
Andy Kohut, first picking up on a point that Senator Byrd made, what do the polls tell us about whether or not Iraq is in fact on the minds of most of the American people right now?
ANDREW KOHUT: Very much. We have a news interest survey that shows two thirds of the public saying they've been paying close attention to news about Iraq, and Iraq is a subject that people are talking about. It's one they care very much about. And it's been somewhat of a slow build, but it's certainly something pressing on the minds of the American public.
JIM LEHRER: Steven Kull do you agree with that?
STEVEN KULL: I do, it's a very high concern. It's not as high as the concern for terrorism, that actually ranks higher and it's also domestic concerns are still stronger than this.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. We’ll get to that in a moment. But it is there -- do you read the polls the same way Andy does, that it’s been building over time?
STEVEN KULL: It has been building over time. Americans feel that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, they can be delivered against the U.S. And that very much concerns them.
JIM LEHRER: In general terms, beginning with you, Andy, how should the American attitude be read now? Based on all the polls, the ones you have done and the other ones that have been done up till now, what are the concerns, what do the American people care about right now as it relates to Iraq specifically?
ANDREW KOHUT: First, Jim, you have to recognize that there is very strong qualified support for using force against Iraq. I have eight polls in front of me from major polling organizations, the support levels for --general support levels for using force range from 50 to 65 or 66 percent with an average of about 60 percent. That is far different from what we saw years ago when we used to talk about using force against Bosnia and Kosovo.
Having said that, the American public has a lot of important qualifications in their ideas about using force against Saddam. They want to make sure that this is a multilateral action, they don't want to see the United States go it alone. They have concerns about casualties as they do in all wars, and they also have concerns about the end game. How is this going to turn out?
JIM LEHRER: We'll go through all that in a minute. I want to get is just an overview, and what you said there at the beginning -- all the polls, you've got eight polls and they all show substantial support for some kind of action with qualification, right?
ANDREW KOHUT: Stronger backing than we had years ago in Bosnia and Kosovo, not the 80 percent levels that we had for going after the Taliban in Afghanistan. But still this is a pretty broad expression of we should use force to get rid of this guy.
JIM LEHRER: Steven Kull, anything to add to that?
STEVEN KULL: In questions that ask about military action, you get very high levels of support. When that's broken out, that means to people air strikes, special forces operations, that kind of thing gets very high levels of support.
When you talk about invasion with ground forces, which would actually be the most likely form of action, then it drops all the way down to the low 50s, even 50 percent, and then when the question of casualties comes up, it goes lower. And when it comes to the option of doing that on our own, then it goes down to a third or even 20 percent in the Chicago Council poll.
JIM LEHRER: So is the number one concern beyond casualties, is it going alone?
STEVEN KULL: There is no poll that shows majority support for an invasion, a unilateral invasion.
JIM LEHRER: An invasion meaning U.S. troops literally going on the ground?
STEVEN KULL: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Unilateral action involving maybe air strikes or something, that's one thing?
STEVEN KULL: Then you get a divided response.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Andy, you're reading the same?
ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely not. The Gallup Poll finds 57 percent favoring the using ground, sending ground troops into Iraq. We found 48 percent, almost a majority, saying we back using force even if there are thousands of casualties or many casualties. And the casualties test is a very, very strong test, because most of these questions only talk about the terrible sacrifice we would make there, but not what the benefit would be.
And I think that there are so many polls suggesting that the public is inclined to use military force here, that there really is, the president really does have the capacity to convert this general level of support into actual support should he put a plan out to the public. But there are these great qualifications, mostly dealing with unilateralism.
JIM LEHRER: That's what I was asking about. Did you agree with Steven on the issue of unilateralism, that in your reading of the polls that is a concern of most Americans?
ANDREW KOHUT: Our 67 percent withers to 33 percent when we pose the question in terms of our doing it alone without the backing of our major allies.
JIM LEHRER: And that jibes with what you’re reading too, Steven?
STEVEN KULL: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, on the casualties issue, well, first of all, do the polls in any way reflect a lack of knowledge on the part of the public? I mean, do people want more information, are do they feel they have enough information to answer these polls and to make a decision on whether or not they support what the president wants to do or not, beginning with you, Andy?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, public opinion about this is still in the making. About 57 percent say they've given this a great deal of thought, that's better than the 40 percent in August, but not at the 67 percent level that President Bush the first had just before the Gulf War. So the public is beginning to make up its mind; and it's getting close, but the public still wants to know more, and most people, many people still say they haven't fully considered this.
JIM LEHRER: You read it the same way?
STEVEN KULL: That sounds about right.
JIM LEHRER: What is the main unknown that concerns people, based on your reading of the polls, Steven?
STEVEN KULL: They want to go through the process of inspections and seeking disarmament through the U.N. process that's out there. They're not eager to take action now, if it takes some time, that's okay. If we go through that process, then afterwards they say okay, if it fails, if Saddam Hussein blocks us and doesn't cooperate, then you get very strong levels of support, they got up to three quarters, close to 80 percent saying under those conditions in a multilateral context we would support going ahead. But they're not, they don't feel an urgency at this point.
JIM LEHRER: To do it right now?
STEVEN KULL: Right.
JIM LEHRER: In your reading, where does Congress fit into this in terms of the public mine?
STEVEN KULL: They don't feel that the President -- should just give a blank check to the President. Sixty percent said they should retain the right to vote -- unless there is, it says that the U.N. has to approve it. Under those circumstances, then about three-quarters would say okay, well, then go ahead and Congress can give the president the power.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, Congress – the U.S. can do it without the U.N. consent, is that what you’re saying?
STEVEN KULL: No, it must be with U.N. consent –
JIM LEHRER: With U.N. consent.
STEVEN KULL: -- or let Congress decide later. One or the other has to decide later, they're not ready to just give it all over to the president at this point.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same way, Andy?
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. The public wants the Congress to put some restrictions on -- on the use of force for the president. They feel the administration may be pushing too fast for war and may want to do it alone. I'm not so sure that the public requires that there be a U.N. resolution.
I think U.N. opposition on the other hand would kill support, American support for the use of force. But the public wants -- certainly wants a sense that our major allies are there with us, and they certainly would object to U.N. opposition to an American effort in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: All right. To both of you, in a general way, I know you all are numbers guys rather than emotion people, but can you read from these polls how strongly these views are held by those who hold them? In other words, people who are very strong in favor of military action, those who may be opposed to military action, those who do not want unilateral, is there any way to read this, or is it a fluid kind of soft feeling? What have you got when you read all these things, Andy, just in terms of tone?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think opinions are getting stronger by the day. People are listening to the debate, people care a great deal about this. This opinion is the, the support for the use of force and the consideration of Iraq is really about in response to the 9/11 attacks. The American public is saying to its government, "Protect us." And people have begun to feel really strongly about it, they haven't answered all of the questions to their own satisfaction. But we're not calling people up and getting some opinion off the top of their head that they haven't thought about, for the most part.
JIM LEHRER: How would you answer this?
STEVEN KULL: They're clear, though, where they want to go now, which is down this path with the U.N., so they're not necessarily troubled. If it got to the point where the U.N. was not coming together, was not coming to a conclusion, and it was a choice they would have to make between going unilaterally or not at all, then I think they would be troubled. But at this point they know what the next step they want to see is.
JIM LEHRER: And do you feel these views are strongly held?
STEVEN KULL: The support for the concerns is very strong about Saddam Hussein; the support for acting multilateral is very strong. And right now those are compatible. At some point in the future they may not be compatible and then it will be a question of which one is stronger.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, gentlemen, thank you both very much.