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Support Grows for Military Actions

Americans' backing for Bush rises; many might endorse moves against Iran or Syria.

April 05, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Buoyed by success on the battlefield, most Americans now express support for an expansive U.S. role in the Middle East, with a clear majority backing the war in Iraq and half endorsing military action against Iran if it continues to develop nuclear weapons, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

The survey found Americans experiencing the traditional rally-around-the-flag effect common when troops are first sent into battle: optimism about the country's direction and support for President Bush both soared.

More than three-fourths of Americans -- including two-thirds of liberals and 70% of Democrats -- now say they support the decision to go to war. And more than four-fifths of these war supporters say they still will back the military action even if allied forces don't find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Bush's overall job approval rating jumped to 68%, the highest level since last summer, and three-fourths of those polled said they trust him to make the right decisions on Iraq.

"I had my own reservations about [the war] ... but my feeling is at least I can trust that this president is trying to do the right thing for the country," said Christopher Hart, an author in Westport, Conn., who responded to the survey. "This man fully believes in what he does and I do not believe he is doing this for any reason other than that he is convinced it is in our best interest."

The Times poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 745 adults Wednesday and Thursday; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Despite such strong endorsements, the poll did contain warning signs for Bush.

His approval rating didn't approach the 85% peak reached by his father, President George H.W. Bush, in Times polls during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

At the same time, most Americans said they wanted the United Nations to play a central role in reconstructing postwar Iraq, while the administration appears to be focused on maximizing U.S. control of the process.

Tax Cut Loses Favor

On the domestic front, a 2-to-1 majority said that, because of the war, the country cannot afford even the stripped-down, $350-billion version of Bush's proposed tax cut that the Senate recently approved.

And though the surge of wartime optimism boosted immediate assessments of the economy, interviews with respondents showed substantial concern about the nation's economic health -- and whether Bush has the right cure.

"I wish he would pay attention to the economy," said David Loveland, a stockbroker in Charleston, S.C. "It appears his focus is on a lot of different things besides the economy."

Overall, the poll painted a powerful picture of traditional wartime consolidation behind the commander in chief. Yet interviews with respondents showed that Americans hold complex, and in many instances ambivalent, views about the war's potential long-term effect.

By 62% to 33%, those polled said the war is likely to make the world a safer place; 52% believe it will help stabilize the Middle East, while 21% believe it will seed more instability. Just under 20% think it's unlikely to have much effect either way.

Those optimistic about the war's long-term effect believe that removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could serve as both deterrent and inspiration. "Getting a foothold in creating a stable, pro-Western and hopefully democratic regime in Iraq, combined with what's going on in Afghanistan, can be a wellspring for good things to happen," Hart said.

But Americans are split almost exactly in half when asked whether the war will increase or diminish the threat of terrorism. Still, that's a significant improvement from the two-thirds who predicted more terror in a Times poll in December.

Ray Sluss, a retired textbook executive from Chicago, may typify the shifting attitudes. He sees the danger of new attacks, but still believes the greater threat may have been allowing Hussein to remain in power.

The war, he said, probably will produce "anger and upset in the Muslim world." But he added, "In this world you have to take risks, and I think it was a reasonable risk."

To combat the danger of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Americans appear willing to accept further risks. Only 17% of those polled said the United States should not send peacekeepers to Iraq after the war ends; 43% said it should commit troops for as long as needed; and 13% said troops should remain in place at least a year.

Broader Scope

And substantial portions of the public are willing to consider military action against other potential threats in the area. "I just think that the Middle East itself will never fall into a peaceful solution unless some of the people who are supporting terror are finally rooted out," said Don Seward, who runs a small real estate business in Western Springs, Ill.

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