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The World | Showdown with Iraq

Court of Public Opinion Becomes Key Battleground

Global polling on war has had a major effect on shaping the diplomatic debate.

March 13, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Global public opinion may be shaping the frantic diplomatic maneuvering over Iraq more than it has affected any international crisis in memory, experts say.

The spread of sophisticated polling techniques has combined with the prominent role of the United Nations to give mass opinion almost unprecedented influence over the debate on war.

"It's almost as if there is a global referendum underway on what America and the rest of the world should do about Iraq," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has surveyed opinions worldwide.

Widespread opposition to the war around the globe may not stop the United States from eventually leading a coalition to invade Iraq. But the public resistance has become an unexpectedly large hurdle for President Bush as he tries to build international legitimacy for an attack.

"We are seeing something absolutely different," said Tom Bentley, director of Demos, a London-based think tank. "Citizen preferences, and public opinion more generally, have become a real-time factor in diplomatic decision-making in a way it never has before."

Partly, experts say, public opinion is resounding so loudly in the Iraq debate because an invasion would be a war of choice not precipitated by a specific provocation, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But at a deeper level, other analysts note, worldwide public opinion may be emerging as such a force because the Iraq controversy is crystallizing a broader anxiety about the way the United States is exercising its power as the world's sole remaining superpower.

"I think there is a very clear drama here, which is that the publics around the world ... have a lot of uneasiness about America's power," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Attitudes at the University of Maryland. "People around the world are looking to their governments and asking, 'Can you stand up to it?' "

Still, these dynamics might not have allowed worldwide public opinion such a large role in the debate if not for two other factors.

One was the decision by Bush, under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to seek U.N. authorization for an attack. That has created an extended opportunity for countries to express their views on a military action.

"I've never seen anything like this where we have a do-we-or-don't-we resolution out in front of the world for some months on end," said former Sen. Timothy E. Wirth, president of the nonprofit United Nations Foundation. "We have never been in that situation."

Every Voice Heard

The second factor is the spread of public opinion polling and the continued growth of global media networks that transmit such findings almost instantly. That has provided an opportunity for citizens in countries everywhere to make their views known not only to their own political leaders but to officials in other governments.

In the last few weeks, local and international polls have systematically measured public attitudes toward a possible war not only in Britain, France and Russia -- permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- but also in Germany, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Bulgaria, Pakistan and Cameroon. In all of those countries, most respondents have said they oppose a war, especially without U.N. backing.

Those views haven't always proved decisive in the positions governments have taken on the war: A Gallup International survey released this year found opposition to an invasion even greater in Spain -- whose government is supporting Bush -- than in France or Germany, whose leaders are resisting the use of force.

Yet the imprint of public opinion on the actions by Bush and other world leaders is unmistakable.

Bush's initial decision in September to seek U.N. involvement in the conflict over disarming Iraq came against a backdrop of polls showing that in the United States -- and especially in Britain and Europe -- war had much broader support with U.N. approval than without it.

More recently, Bush has been forced to delay an attack and pursue a second U.N. resolution authorizing an invasion because Blair, his closest ally, needs that international imprimatur to defuse public opposition in his country.

Whereas the White House has long calculated that it could eventually win domestic support for an invasion even without U.N. support -- and recent polls show American attitudes moving in that direction -- British polls show majority backing for a war only with Security Council authorization.

Now polls showing intense skepticism about war in countries such as Mexico, Chile and Pakistan have forced Bush and Blair to make repeated compromises in their drive to win a council majority for a second resolution.

"It is making it harder for anybody who wants to be for the United States to be with us, since there is no public support for it," said James B. Steinberg, who served as President Clinton's deputy national security advisor.

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