President George Bush won plaudits at home and abroad recently when he took to America’s airwaves to make his case for disarming Iraq. But the fact that he felt compelled to give the prime-time speech suggests that the White House knows it has a potential political problem on its hands: the American public remains ambivalent about war with Iraq.
The idea that average Americans harbour qualms about unseating Saddam Hussein might seem odd. After all, Congress has voted overwhelmingly to give President Bush authority to attack Iraq. But life on Capitol Hill has its own peculiar dynamics. Several prominent Republican politicians criticised President Bush’s push for war in August, only to rally behind the White House in recent weeks when the demands of party loyalty called.
Meanwhile, many Democratic lawmakers feared that opposing a popular president bent on getting his own way would only hand Republicans an issue in the November mid-term elections.
The American people, however, have no such political pressures to curb their doubts. Most polls show that slightly more than half of all Americans now favour invading Iraq with US ground troops. In contrast, roughly 40 per cent oppose war.
Still, polls and conversations in bars and coffee shops make clear that few Americans see Iraq as the most pressing issue facing the United States. With the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting multi-year lows and unemployment rising, most people put domestic issues at the top of the country’s agenda.
Nor do Americans necessarily put Iraq at the top of their list of important foreign policy problems. Most think that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, represent the biggest threat to US security.
Public support for attacking Iraq depends heavily on context. Most Americans expect any war to produce few US casualties. As those expectations change, enthusiasm for the war rapidly erodes.
Whether allies and the UN back Washington also matters: a go-alone-it war attracts little support.
The public’s ambivalence, neither demanding that the President lead the country into war nor insisting that he keep it at peace, means that Bush has a free hand to decide whether or not to invade.
Should he decide to drop the threat of war in exchange for unfettered weapons inspections, most Americans would applaud his leadership, and then turn to other issues. Ironically, a diplomatic resolution to the crisis would have the least support within Republican ranks.
Conversely, if Bush decides for war, his main task will be either to produce a UN resolution and allied support, or to make a convincing case that he did everything possible to solve the crisis through diplomacy. Even then, with Congress having blessed the war, Bush has all the legal authority he needs to invade Iraq.
Whatever the American public thinks on the eve of war, the Bush Administration knows from experience that ambivalence will give way to euphoria if fighting goes well. When what may soon come to be called the First Gulf War began, only a small majority favoured it. After a few days of bombing, almost all Americans did.
The danger for the Bush Administration arises if the war does not go according to the optimistic scenario that its supporters have written for it. A public that begins in ambivalence could quickly sour on the war, and the president leading it. Then George Bush might discover what Lyndon Johnson lamented during the Vietnam War having the public with you when fighting begins does not guarantee they will be with you when it ends.