The Gulf War Produced a Jump in Patriotism and Support for Military

January 16, 1994|By TOM W. SMITH

Three years ago, the Persian Gulf war captivated the nation's attention. For six weeks, from Jan. 16 to Feb. 27, 1991, we watched on CNN as the allies destroyed strategic targets and pummeled Iraqi troops with more than 100,000 sorties and as Iraq struck back with Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After these aerial preliminaries, the United States and its allies launched the 100-hour ground war Feb. 24-27 that drove the Iraqis from Kuwait, crushed their army and forced them to surrender. With Iraqi-to-allied casualties running a reported 1,000-to-1, few military campaigns have been so overwhelming, and fewer wars had ever been so successfully and expeditiously concluded. The 425,000 U.S. troops returned to joyful triumphs unseen since World War II, and the war leadership of President George Bush, Gen. Colin L, Powell and allied commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf received the accolades of a proud nation.

Yet barely 18 months after Iraq's defeat, after an official cease-fire was accepted and signed in April 1991, Mr. Bush lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton (with assistance from Ross Perot). And today the gulf war seems like a distant, fading and not-too-relevant memory; an event that in our rearview mirror appears smaller and more distant than it really is.

Driving this shifting story of triumph, defeat and forgetting is one of the largest and most striking movements in public opinion that the United States has undergone in 50 years.

It was not that the gulf war had little sway on public consciousness and attitudes. Indeed, its impact in a number of areas was enormous.

First, it shifted public attention from domestic to international concerns. In the summer of 1990, before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, fewer than 5 percent of Americans mentioned foreign affairs as the country's "most important problem." This surged to 26 percent after the invasion and climbed to 40 percent when hostilities commenced in January.

Second, support for the military soared. In a March 1990 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, only 34 percent had a great deal of confidence in the military, but a year later 61 percent had a great deal of confidence. Among 1991 high school seniors, 56 percent said the military was doing a very good job, compared to only 21 percent for the class of 1990. Similarly, while in 1990, 44 percent thought too much money was being spent on the military, in March 1991 this dropped to 28 percent.

Third, public ratings of the government surged upward. Mr. Bush's presidential job approval rating stood at about 60 percent before the Kuwait invasion, moved to 75 percent immediately after the invasion, topped 80 percent when the war broke out in January, and in late February and early March reached a historic high of 89 percent after the ground war. Likewise, in April 1990, only 25 percent felt the government did what was right at least most of the time. In March 1991, this reached 47 percent.

Fourth, national pride and patriotism swelled. In February 1991, 71 percent said the gulf war made them feel more patriotic, and 70 percent described themselves as "strongly patriotic."

But although the gains in support for the military and government, pride and patriotism, and other areas were real and substantial, they were short-lived. Public opinion underwent a "return to normalcy" that almost entirely rolled back the gulf war gains within a year.

First, the Middle East quickly disappeared from people's lists of concerns. By May 1991, just two months after the war's conclusion, only 2 percent mentioned the Middle East and just 3 percent cited any international matter as America's "most important problem."

Second, from 1991 to 1993, confidence in the military fell 18 percentage points and the percentage saying there was too much military spending climbed back to 43 percent, almost exactly where it had been in 1990 before the war.

Third, Mr. Bush's popularity fell steadily from his wartime high of 89 percent until it reached a low of 29 percent during the summer of 1992, the greatest decline in presidential popularity ever recorded. Similarly, by June 1992, the percent thinking the government does what is right most of the time had fallen back to its prewar level at 23 percent.

Fourth, patriotism quickly ebbed from its March 1991 peak of 70 percent being "strongly patriotic" to 65 percent in May and only 55 percent in June.

This derailed Mr. Bush's re-election plans. In July 1992, 56 percent characterized Mr. Bush as "patriotic, believes in America," while only half as many (28 percent) so anointed Mr. Clinton. Likewise, in September 1992, 18 percent were dissatisfied with Mr. Clinton's patriotism, compared to only 6 percent questioning Mr. Bush's.

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