The New York Times
April 15, 2003

Americans See Clear Victory in Iraq, Poll Finds


Americans overwhelmingly consider the war in Iraq a success, and a majority say the victory will stand even if Saddam Hussein remains at large or if the United States fails to unearth chemical or nuclear weapons, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

But a majority remains opposed to a policy of pre-emptive attack like the one President Bush invoked in invading Iraq, and see the White House, emboldened by its success, as now likely to turn the nation's military might on North Korea, Syria or Iran.

At home, the fall of Baghdad has fortified President Bush's political standing. The poll found that 73 percent of Americans approve of his job performance up from 59 percent the week before the war and that his approval rating among Democrats was 61 percent. The finding is reminiscent of the spike in popularity Mr. Bush's father enjoyed for the first few months after the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

The poll, taken over the weekend, found that for the first time since 2001, a majority of Americans, 62 percent, believe that the nation is winning the war on terrorism. And there has been a sharp drop in the number of people who fear terrorist reprisal attacks in the United States because of the invasion in Iraq. The poll found that 79 percent of respondents approve of Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq, the most support Mr. Bush has received on his Iraq policy.

From a political perspective, the Times/CBS News poll pointed to a number of signs, on both the domestic and foreign policy front, of the difficulties the Democratic Party faces as it tries to win the White House and Congress next year.

The nation has rallied around its president and is confident about the state of the country, a not-uncommon occurrence at a time of war. But beyond Mr. Bush's approval rating, a figure that typically gyrates with changing times, the number of Americans who believe the country is heading in the right direction has jumped nearly 20 percentage points since February, to 56 percent. That measure is closely watched by pollsters as a reliable indicator of the re-election prospects of an incumbent.

The Times/CBS News poll found evidence that the Democrats are not in as strong a position as they presumably would like on the issue that they believe could return them to power the economy. Americans are exactly divided, 42 percent to 42 percent, on which party would do a better job in managing the economy.

And there has been a jump of 7 percentage points since January, to 54 percent, in the number of Americans who said they had confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the economy. That sentiment was voiced even as respondents expressed concern about the decline of the economy under Mr. Bush, and even though just 46 percent said they approved of his handling of the economy.

The improving view of Mr. Bush on the economy appears to be a dividend of the overall jump in Americans' perception of Mr. Bush during the war. Mr. Bush's political advisers have argued that any voter concerns about the economy would ultimately be outweighed by a perception that Mr. Bush is a strong and grounded president, created by his handling of the war in Iraq.

Mr. Bush's father, at a similar point after the previous war in Iraq, also enjoyed relatively favorable marks for his management of the economy. That perception, along with his own approval rating which was even higher than the figure enjoyed today by his son swiftly deteriorated as images of the war were supplanted by concerns about a troubled economy.

The Times/CBS News telephone poll was conducted Friday through Sunday, and involved 898 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Several Democrats have suggested that Mr. Bush's standing would begin to erode if American troops were stranded in Iraq, or if the United States failed to find or kill Mr. Hussein, or find the weapons of mass destruction that Mr. Bush said was the rationale for his invasion.

But nearly 60 percent of respondents said the United States would have won a clear victory in the war in Iraq even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and 51 percent said they would consider it a victory even if Mr. Hussein is neither caught nor killed.

"We have all of Iraq right now," said Carol Hayward, 59, a Democrat from New York City. "We don't need Saddam Hussein or his weapons. "We have all the oil fields under control and the cooperation of the people."

And, there does not appear to be any great pressure on Mr. Bush to end the American presence in Iraq any time soon, a finding that could prove significant as the presidential race begins. Forty-six percent of respondents said they expected American troops to remain in Iraq for at least a year.

The poll found that Americans believe that their nation would continue its aggressive effort to police the world. About 6 in 10 said they thought it was very likely or somewhat likely that the success of the war in Iraq would prompt the United States to intervene in Korea or Syria, while 3 in 10 said it was not very likely. Half foresaw a very or somewhat likely military intervention in Iran.

Ina Urness, 71, of Higginsville, Mo., said in a follow-up interview that she approved of the administration's moving pre-emptively against nations that posed a threat to the United States. "We ought to nip it right in the bud, because it's better them than us," she said. "Get over there and get them before they can have a chance to turn those missiles loose on us over here."

Adam Coleman, 25, a Democrat from Alexandria, Va., also said he expected the United States to intervene in one of those countries, though he said he was not happy at the prospect. "This current administration doesn't particularly follow through on diplomatic policies, therefore I think they're rather quick to rush to military action, particularly against nations that they really do have a strong hold over," he said. "We kind of bully them."

Still, a majority of Americans said future interventions should be done as part of an international coalition. And while most Americans said that the United States had the responsibility to ensure that a new government is put in place in Iraq and to police the country to guard against looting they said the rebuilding effort should be led by an international coalition. Two-thirds of respondents said the United Nations, rather than the United States, should have lead responsibility in rebuilding Iraq.

And the nation has yet to embrace the tactical doctrine of pre-emption Mr. Bush advanced to justify the war in Iraq and, potentially, an invasion of Syria, North Korea or Iran. For example, 51 percent said the United States should not invade another nation unless it was attacked first. And 48 percent said it was wrong for the United States to try to change a dictatorship to a democracy.

The White House yesterday stepped up its criticism of Syria, accusing it of harboring Iraqi fugitives. But the Times/CBS News poll found that among Americans who said they believed another country posed a serious threat to the United States, North Korea was of far more concern than Syria: 39 percent of those respondents named North Korea, compared to just 5 percent who cited Syria. One percent named Iran.

That could change soon. The poll found that 81 percent of respondents said that Iraq probably had weapons of mass destruction, and of those in that group, 27 percent said they believed the weapons had been spirited off to another country. The White House yesterday suggested that that country was Syria.

By most measures, Americans feel triumphant about the way the war has gone. Even as Americans view further military action by the United States in the Mideast as likely, they say they believe the ousting of Hussein would lead to more stability in Iraq and throughout the region.

And if there were any concerns about how the White House was waging this war, they fell with Baghdad. For example, in the space of two weeks, there has been a turnaround in the number of Americans who believe the United States correctly assessed the resistance it would encounter from the Iraqis. Fifty-nine percent now say the United States was accurate in its prewar assessment, compared to 31 percent who said it underestimated the fight the Iraqis would put up. And 44 percent said there were fewer casualties than they had expected.

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