WASHINGTON — By a margin of more than 3 to 1, the public approves of President Clinton's decision to fire cruise missiles at Iraq--although a substantial majority of Americans does not believe the action will achieve its purpose of thwarting future aggression by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to a new Times Poll.
Responses to a series of questions concerning the U.S. retaliation last week for Hussein's attack on Kurds in northern Iraq contain much good news for Clinton as the November election nears. By 60% to 31%, Americans polled said they now believe Clinton can be trusted to handle a major crisis.
Moreover, a majority of those surveyed rejected suggestions that Clinton acted for domestic political reasons. About 54% said the president's objective was to prevent Hussein from gaining more power; 31% said his purpose was to improve his standing in advance of the election; 10% said he was pursuing both objectives.
The poll also found the strike on Iraqi air defense systems in the country's southern section was more popular with men than it was with women, potentially shoring up the president's standing with a constituency that has been difficult for him in the past.
The survey results contained one note of caution for Clinton: Support for his current policy could crumble if it results in American casualties in the future. By 48% to 41%, respondents said it is not worth risking American lives to deter Hussein. That question produced a stark gender difference: By 51% to 43%, men said the Iraqi president must be stopped, even at the cost of American lives; women rejected that assertion by 54% to 32%.
Responses to this question also varied by age. The 18-to-29 age group that would provide most of the troops in a war with Iraq said by almost a 2-to-1 margin that stopping Hussein is not worth American lives; about half of the people between ages 30 and 65 thought it is.
The Times Poll, supervised by acting Poll Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,522 adults Sept. 7 through Sept. 10; the attacks on Iraq occurred Sept. 3 and Sept. 4. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Asked if they approved or disapproved of the missile attacks, 41% strongly approved and 27% approved somewhat, for a combined 68% approval rating. Disapproval was expressed by 22%, including 12% who said they strongly disapproved. Among men, approval was 76% to 20%; among women, 61% to 24%.
When questioned about the president's handling of Iraq, without direct reference to the attacks, the public approved by 58% to 31%.
Although Clinton's go-it-alone action drew sharp criticism from France, Turkey and most Arab states, 53% of the Americans surveyed said the president made the right decision to not wait for action by a multinational coalition. Only 9% of the poll respondents said the attacks were "too tough." Another 30% said they were not tough enough, while 46% said they were about right.
Still, the survey showed that relatively few believe the attacks will keep Hussein from again using force against Kurds who oppose him or invading other Middle Eastern countries. By 61% to 28%, the poll sample said the attacks will not prove to be a deterrent.
Despite the expressed concern about U.S. casualties in the current conflict, 67% said it was a mistake for President Bush to end the Persian Gulf War in 1991 before ordering a potentially costly drive to push Hussein out of office. Only 25% did not view that decision as a mistake.
Clinton's Handling of Iraq
The Times Poll contains much good news for President Clinton as the November election nears. The American public generally supports the president's recent moves against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Do you approve of the way Bill Clinton is handling the situation in Iraq?
Don't know: 11%
Do you approve of Clinton's decision to launch missile attacks against Iraqi air defense installations?
Don't know: 10%
The recent U.S. military actions against Iraq were ...
... Too tough: 9%
... not tough enough: 30%
... about right: 46%
Don't know: 15%
Did President Bush and the U.S. allies make a mistake in 1991 by not removing Saddam Hussein from power?
Not a mistake: 25%
Don't know: 8%
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED: The Times Poll contacted 1,522 adults nationwide, including 1,265 registered voters, by telephone Sept. 7 through Sept. 10. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education, region and party identification. The margin of sampling error for all adults and registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors, such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Note: These questions were asked to all adult respondents.