Popular support of war is holding, pollsters say

February 04, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Popular support of President Bush's Persian Gulf war aims is solid and not likely to disintegrate even though Americans realize the war may last months and result in casualties, several leading public opinion experts say.

Although the "public is clearly aware now the war is going to take longer," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, "support still remains high.

"It's hard to anticipate when, and if, support will begin to deteriorate," Newport said.

A Gallup Poll released Saturday shows that more than 80 percent of Americans still support the decision to go to war and nearly 90 percent approve of the way Bush has handled the war effort.

Bush has enjoyed strong support of his gulf policies since he began sending troops to Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2. Surveys by ABC News and the Washington Post found approval of the president's efforts ranged from 75 percent in mid-August to 83 percent Jan. 20, and never dropped below 59 percent, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

Support has remained steady even as Americans increasingly assume that the war will last not weeks but months. Gallup Polls done for Newsweek revealed that the percentage of Americans who believe the war will last months grew from 36 percent Jan. 18 to 63 percent Jan. 25.

The data demonstrate that Americans have more patience and fortitude than some skeptics credit them with, some experts say.

"You hear a lot of glib journalistic commentary, 'If the bodies start coming in, public support will start dropping quickly,' " said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University. "But I'm a real dissenter on that. . . . The nation is willing to make sacrifices if they think progress is being made."

"It takes a long time for the public to turn around," Lichtman said. "And just casualties won't do it."

Experts say the depth of support grows out of the public's acceptance of the justification given for going to war.

Despite critics who say Bush hasn't clearly stated the nation's interests, more than 80 percent of Americans say the president clearly explained "why we are there" in his major speeches on the gulf, Newport said.

The basis of popular support, said Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center, is whether the public believes "the case it was presented in the beginning was sound and that the actions pursuing the policy are being sensibly, properly, competently handled."

Lichtman said that, while protesters chant "no blood for oil," he feels most Americans believe the stakes are higher. "It's when we think lives are being lost to no purpose" that support drops, he said.

The experts acknowledge that one source of popular support is a "rally around the flag" phenomenon Americans historically display after troops are committed to war. But what Ladd said strikes him the most is "the degree of backing before the war" for Bush's gulf policy.

And yet opinion experts say public support could diminish if the allies blunder -- evidence of which might be high casualties or a protracted war. There can come a point of "clouding over of the goals of the war and whether it's worth winning," Lichtman said.

But experts differ on how soon that point -- what number of casualties or month of war -- could conceivably be reached.

"I think he [Bush] has got a pretty good cushion," Lichtman said, "many months, before public support starts to drop off."

Ladd said "the public was told winning this war could be achieved in some reasonable time at some reasonable cost," raising the possibility of disappointment. But, he added, "there's no indication on the basis of anything we have seen thus far that we're anywhere near circumstances where public judgments are changed."

If there are occasional days of bad news from the war front, "I wouldn't expect any fundamental change in public sentiment," Ladd said.

Pollster Louis Harris, however, detects limits to the public's patience.

"There is a potential squeeze on the administration to end the war as quickly as possible within three months' time," Harris said last week. "One side comes from the more hawkish sector of public opinion, which is confident the job can be done quickly and with dispatch. The other is from the more dovish side of public opinion which was leery of the war in the first place, and which says it will not tolerate moderate or heavy casualties."

Harris based his observation in part on polls showing that 36 percent of Americans say they will view the war as a "failure" or as "not doing very well" if it is not ended within three months. Forty-six percent say they would have a negative view of the war if in three months Saddam Hussein is still Iraq's leader.

But Harris noted, as did other pollsters, that current support of the war is not based on illusions about its bloodiness or duration. Harris said 26 percent of Americans expect "heavy casualties" and 51 percent, "moderate casualties."

None of the public opinion experts was surprised about the constancy of public support to this point.

As time passes, said Gallup's Newport, "I have rather more confidence than less in the American public's ability to make up their mind about issues."

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