WASHINGTON -- A new opinion poll has confirmed something politicians of both parties have suspected for weeks -- that popular support for waging war against Iraq is a lot more fragile than President Bush seems to believe. The figures paint a picture of potential political disaster for the president if the war becomes costly and protracted.
From the outset, the White House has put heavy emphasis on the public support for the policy in the Persian Gulf. And the new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed the same pattern -- 67 percent approving the president's "handling" of the situation and 63 percent saying the United States should "go to war" if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait while only 32 percent opposed such action.
But political professionals -- including those advising the White House -- have known all along that there is always a predisposition to "support the president" when an international crisis is being confronted. And polling experts also know that many respondents will answer such questions off the tops of their heads without thinking through the ramifications of the position they are taking.
The new study went a step further, however, by introducing the concept of casualty levels -- with startling results. Asked if they would approve going to war "if it meant 1,000 American troops would be killed in the fighting," those in favor dropped to 44 percent; those opposed rose to 53 percent. When the hypothetical casualty level was raised to 10,000 American troops being killed, only 35 percent favored going to war; 61 percent were opposed.
So, the introduction of a little dose of reality into the picture turned the results upside down. The message was that most Americans favor going to war only if there is no cost.
For many professional politicians, the figures were less than surprising. Throughout the general election campaign last fall Senate and congressional candidates of both parties were conspicuously cautious on the Persian Gulf issue, almost universally expressing "support" for the president but often being careful to attach conditions. Privately they were becoming convinced that, although the voters wanted the Iraqis out of Kuwait, they were not willing to pay a high price for it -- even in terms of gasoline prices, let alone the lives of Americans.
Since the election, nonetheless, Bush has been building support for his "handling" of the crisis with daily, sometimes almost hourly, rhetorical assaults on Saddam Hussein, coupled with the diplomatic campaign that resulted in the United Nations resolution setting the Jan. 15 deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait. Meanwhile, polls have recorded a growing acceptance of the notion that the U.S. may be obliged to go to war in the Middle East -- even if the reasons may not be entirely clear.
But the long-overdue introduction of the concept of casualties shows these reassuring estimates of a national consensus are based on sand. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe the popular reaction against a war might be far more intense than the Post-ABC poll found.
At the most obvious level, there is the very real possibility that the casualty figures may be far higher than the 10,000 deaths postulated in the survey. Although Bush has been saying repeatedly that a war with Iraq will not be "another Vietnam" and would be over quickly and decisively, there were earlier estimates from the Pentagon that as many as 20,000 deaths might result. And the fact is that no one can predict with any confidence how such a war would play out.
The findings of any poll that are based on hypothetical situations cannot forecast how Americans would respond to the spectacle on their television screens of their young people being killed and wounded in the deserts of Saudi Arabia or in Kuwait or Iraq. We know from the experience with the war in Vietnam that television has the capacity to make such events very real for viewers.
No one would suggest that President Bush should base his decisions in the Persian Gulf solely on guesses about public opinion. He signed on to be a leader, not a weather vane.
But the president and his advisers have said all along that they understand the need for a national consensus behind administration policy if it is to succeed; that lesson from Vietnam is the one on which there is widespread agreement. So the Post-ABC survey is, at the very least, a warning signal the White House would be foolish to ignore.