Polls say U.S. public backs president, invasion of Iraq

March 21, 2003, 10:53PM
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Most Americans approve of the decision to begin military action against Iraq, according to polls released Friday.

The polls also show public support for President Bush surging with the invasion of Iraq, but not to the level of support for his father 12 years ago in the early days of the Persian Gulf War.

A Gallup poll conducted Thursday night — one day after coalition forces launched an aerial attack on Baghdad — found 76 percent of Americans supporting the decision to go to war.

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted the same evening showed 74 percent supporting the start of war against Iraq.

Strikingly strong support in the early days of a war is not surprising, said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist.

“Whatever the debate about going into the war was, it’s over,” he said. “We are in combat. The American public rallies around the flag and the president of the United States during times of crisis.”

Media coverage of the events can also alter opinions. “You see tons of publicity about troops’ skill and bravery,” Murray said. “Those kinds of reports can make people feel good about what’s going on.”

The findings of the Gallup poll are nearly identical to the level of public support in the early days of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The decision to begin military action then won the approval of 79 percent of the adults surveyed by Gallup.

This week’s The New York Times/CBS Poll also found that 62 percent of those surveyed agreed that the timing of the attack was appropriate. Thirty-five percent said United Nations weapons inspectors should have been given more time before military action was begun.

The polls found the public rallying around the president, boosting his job approval ratings by 15 percentage points. Murray said that if the war is short-lived, the higher rating likely will not carry over to Bush’s re-election effort in 2004.

“More important will be the ongoing war on terrorism and what happens on that regard,” Murray said. “That’s not going to go away. This (war with Iraq) should be over soon.”

Two weeks ago, 54 percent approved of the way Bush was leading the country, according to the New York Times/CBS Poll. Thursday’s poll found 67 percent approving of how the president does his job.

Those numbers will rise quickly, but fall slowly, Murray said, adding that once hostilities are over, Bush’s approval ratings likely will go back to pre-war levels.

In 1991, then-President Bush’s job approval rating jumped to 82 percent in the early days of the Persian Gulf War, eventually peaking at 88 percent. Eighteen months later, voters turned him out of office and elected Democrat Bill Clinton.

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