Poll: No Rush To War
CBS News

September 24, 2002

Americans very much want Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of power, and see him as a threat - a feeling that has not changed in over ten years. And while many Americans now believe that Hussein is a greater threat than Osama bin Laden, there is still no great rush to go to war in Iraq.

Americans want the U.S. to wait and build an international coalition, and follow the recommendations of the United Nations, even though they are not sure the U.N. can make a difference. They want the Congress to ask even more questions about military actions - and most now say it's okay to criticize the president's military decisions. And, contrary to the Administration's arguments, many feel that a new war with Iraq would not lessen the threat of terrorism against the U.S. - if anything, it might increase that threat.


There is broad public support for getting Congress involved in the current debate about how to deal with Iraq. Twice as many Americans think members of Congress haven't asked enough questions about Bush's policy towards Iraq as think they've asked too many. Many Americans want Congress to take its time on this issue: just over half think Congress should wait until the United Nations has acted, rather than rush to judgment.

44% say members of Congress have not asked enough questions about President Bush's policy on Iraq, while one in five say they have asked too many questions.

There are partisan differences. A majority of Democrats thinks members of Congress are not questioning Bush's Iraq policy strongly enough, while as many Republicans say Congress is asking too many questions as say it isn't asking enough.

By roughly two to one, Americans say President Bush should get the approval of Congress before taking military action against Iraq. This is unchanged from earlier this month, before Bush's address to the U.N.

Americans are willing to wait for that approval: a majority wants Congress to wait until the U.N. has acted before voting on a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, even if that would take longer than the few weeks in which the administration wants action. 41% want Congress to vote without waiting for the U.N.

Republicans and Democrats take opposite views on this issue. 55% of Republicans want Congress to go ahead and vote on a resolution in the new few weeks, even without a U.N. resolution. 66% of Democrats say Congress should wait until the U.N. has acted.


The majority's willingness to delay comes in part from a desire for international support - from the United Nations and from U.S. allies. 57% want the U.S. to give the United Nations more time to get inspectors back into Iraq, and 52% think the U.S. should follow the recommendations of the U.N. when it comes to taking action against Iraq instead of taking action on its own.

Before the president's speech to the U.N. September 12th, a majority of Americans said they wanted to give the U.N. more time. Now, almost two weeks afterward, they still do.

However, there are mixed feelings as to whether President Bush is willing to deal with the Iraqi threat through the United Nations. Half think that Bush wants the U.S. to work with the United Nations on this, but nearly as many, 40%, think he wants the U.S. to make decisions about Iraq without really working with the U.N.

There are sizable partisan differences in views of Bush's willingness to work with the United Nations. 66% of Republicans think Bush wants to work with that organization; only 36% of Democrats share that view.

The public wants U.N. involvement even though most Americans doubt that the U.N. will prevent Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction (in fact, 77% think he has them already).

This poll finds no strong endorsement of U.N. effectiveness overall, and many think the U.S. needs to have more influence there. 40% think the United Nations is doing a good job trying to solve the problems it has to face, and more -- 50% -- think it is doing a poor job. While views of the U.N. have been similar in years past, two months after the 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S., a CBS News Poll found many more positive opinions about U.N. effectiveness; then, 63% thought it was doing a good job.

Women and Democrats give the U.N. higher marks than do men and Republicans. Those who think the U.N. is doing a poor job are more likely to support the United States acting alone in dealing with Iraq.

38% of all Americans think the U.S. has too little influence in the U.N. 39% think it has the right amount of influence, and 13% think it has too much.

But there is still the desire to wait before acting against Iraq - for the U.N. and for U.S. allies. In this poll, 61% say the U.S. needs to wait for its allies before taking any action, and 31% think the threat from Iraq is such that the U.S. needs to act now, even without the allies' support. That has changed little in the past two months.


The newly articulated Bush doctrine of pre-emption gets mixed reviews from the country; 44% of Americans say the U.S. should NOT attack another country unless that country has attacked the U.S. first. On the other hand, 43% say the U.S. should be able to attack any country it thinks might attack the U.S.

Men and women disagree. So do Republicans and Democrats; six in ten Republicans favor pre-emption, while six in ten Democrats do not. Independents - like the country itself - are split.

However, when it comes to Iraq in particular, pre-emption is an acceptable option. 58% say that the U.S. should be able to attack Iraq if it thinks Iraq might attack the U.S. Almost one-third say the U.S. should NOT attack Iraq unless Iraq attacks first.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support the United States' right to attack Iraq first, but that gap has narrowed. Now, 64% of Republicans support a pre-emptive strike, compared to 57% of Democrats. Earlier this month, just half of Democrats supported the United States' right to attack Iraq first, compared to 71% of Republicans.

There is some hesitation among the public about the U.S. taking the lead role on the international stage. Half of the public says the U.S. should NOT take the leading role among all countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts. 45% say the U.S. should take do so.

While both Democrats and Republicans are similarly divided on whether the U.S. should take a leading role, there are ideological differences. By 51%-41%, conservatives say the U.S. should take a leading role in trying to solve international conflicts. Liberals disagree by 65%-33%.


In the past two weeks, the Bush administration has made great strides in clarifying its position on Iraq to the American public. In the first week of September, only 27% believed the administration had clearly explained its case; now, nearly twice as many do.

Bush's explanations have not lead to an increase in support for military action in Iraq. Still, support for military action remains high, and most Americans in principle favor military action to remove Saddam Hussein.

Smaller majorities support military action even when the public is reminded of potential American military casualties and the possibility of a long conflict. 57% say removing Hussein from power is worth the potential loss of American life and other costs, and the same number support it even if the U.S. incurred substantial casualties. Two weeks ago, 50% favored removing Hussein even if the U.S. took heavy casualties.

About half would support action even if it meant a long involvement there, about the same number as two weeks ago. And many believe that would be the case: 49% say a U.S. war in Iraq would be a long and costly involvement, a figure virtually unchanged from two weeks ago.

Americans also increasingly believe war with Iraq is inevitable. This feeling has increased over the past two weeks during the buildup toward U.N. and Congressional resolutions authorizing force.


If Saddam Hussein has replaced Osama bin Laden as the administration's public enemy #1, Americans have apparently listened: more now see Hussein as a greater threat to the U.S. right now than bin Laden.

A majority of Americans, 51%, also believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

But while more think Hussein the individual is more dangerous than bin Laden, Americans nonetheless think that dealing with Hussein can wait. As many still see the al Qaeda network, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, as a greater threat to their security than say Iraq is the greater threat, perhaps because bin Laden's whereabouts or fate remain unknown.

And when it comes to setting priorities, Americans narrowly say that bin Laden and al Qaeda, not Hussein, should be the nation's top priority overall.

Choosing which enemy to fight may not be a mutually exclusive choice, though: an overwhelming majority, 70%, believes that members of al Qaeda are currently in Iraq.

There are more concerns over whether the U.S. should attack Iraq at the same time as hunting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, than over whether it can fight both successfully. Nearly two-thirds think the U.S. can do both, but less than half think the U.S. should do both.

As for the engagement in Afghanistan, Americans still do not believe the war in Afghanistan is an unqualified success, although this has increased slightly over the past two weeks. A majority, 53%, say it is going only "somewhat well" while only 19% say it is going "very well." Another 20% say it is going "somewhat badly."

Much of this feeling hinges on the capture of Osama bin Laden - as long as his whereabouts or fate remains a mystery, a large majority feels the U.S. will not have won the war. This feeling has been strong and virtually unchanged throughout the course of the war.

Americans do remain somewhat optimistic, however, that bin Laden's capture will happen - 58% say they are very confident or somewhat confident he will be captured or killed. That's a slight increase from earlier polls.

Americans are unconvinced that attacking Iraq will reduce the threat of a terrorist attack against the U.S. 44% say an attack on Iraq would actually make a terrorist strike against the U.S. more likely, and another 34% believe it will have no impact - that the threat will stay the same. Only 18% believe a U.S. attack on Iraq will lower the threat of a terrorist attack.

Overall, the public remains concerned about future terrorist attacks. Two in three Americans think a terrorist attack against the U.S. is likely to occur in the next few months. Americans are not as concerned as they were this summer, when 81% thought another terrorist attack was likely.


President Bush's speech to the United Nations may have produced slight improvements in his approval ratings here at home. His overall approval rating is now 66%, up from 63% at the beginning of this month. Approval ratings on his handling of the economy, foreign policy, and campaign against terrorism have also increased marginally.

The president's handling of foreign policy and the economy provoke the most partisan differences. Majorities of Democrats disapprove of his handling of both.

As the war on terrorism continues, Americans express greater willingness to accept criticism of the president - even on military issues. Six in ten now say it's okay to publicly criticize President Bush on his military decisions; seven in ten say this about criticizing the president on economic issues. There are only small partisan differences.

Last October, at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, a majority resisted the idea of publicly criticizing President Bush on military issues, and four in ten said it was not okay to criticize Bush's economic policies.


Despite the stock market drops and a lackluster economy, the public sees terrorism as having a higher priority for the nation right now over the economy and jobs. By 55% to 33%, Americans say terrorism and national security, instead of the economy, should be the nation's higher priority.

Men, women, Republicans and Democrats all agree, though by different margins, that terrorism is a higher priority than the economy. The youngest adults, those between 18-29, give the economy precedence.


The prospect of a close election this fall remains. Among registered voters, 40% say they will vote for the Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives this fall, while 40% say they will vote for the Republican. But one in five registered voters haven't decided yet. Voters who think the economy should be the higher priority favor the Democrats, while those who think terrorism should be the priority favor the Republicans.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)