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Debating The Attack on Iraq

By Floyd Ciruli
August 2002

The potential for war in Iraq hangs heavy in the summer air. President Bush and the administration appear committed. The near certainty of attack has political commentators speculating on a strike date — the odds on favorite is February 2003. Democrats and a few Republicans on the summer talk circuit are floating counter positions, which hinge on raising questions and demanding more information and participation in the decision. But most stop short of directly opposing an attack.

Since September 11, 2001, the American people have shown considerable solidarity with the president’s objectives in the war against terrorism. Despite the growing debate on the merits of attacking Iraq, Colorado voters remain in a the martial mood. In a July 2002 Ciruli Associates statewide poll:

  • 87% approve of the United States’ military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
  • 55% approve of President Bush calling Iraq, Iran and North Korea “the axis of evil.”
  • 65% approve of military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The sentiments of Colorado voters are in alignment with the rest of the nation. For example, an August 11, 2002, Washington Post - ABC News poll reported 69 percent of respondents favor using American troops to topple Hussein.

War With Iraq

Not surprisingly, the groups least supportive of military action in Iraq are on the political left. But even strong Democrats are narrowly divided on the war. In contrast, Republicans are highly supportive. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the president’s “axis of evil” term applied to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The figure below shows Republicans overwhelmingly support both the war and the “axis of evil” concept.

President Bush, after introducing the concept in his 2002 State of the Union speech, clarified that while military action is not imminent, this new harder line policy was proposed as part of countering hostile nations seeking or possessing weapons of mass destruction.

However, those who oppose the "axis of evil" terminology tend not to relate it to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ongoing threat of terror. They criticize it as a simplistic labeling of complex international relationships and justification for use of military force around the world.

Reasons for Regime Change

Although a majority of voters are prepared for a war with Iraq, they are concerned. voters, especially Democrats, want the approval of Congress and other allied nations as a part of the effort. Further, support declines when loss of American life is added to polling language. Two additional issues that erode support in polls are the cost oto the economy and the responsibility of plicing Iraq during a transition.

The administration and foreign policy hawks offer several reasons to oust the regime in Bagdad. Among them, the association of Hussein and his government with sponsorship of terror, including but not definitely tied to 9/11; the possession of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction along with a demonstrated willingness to use them; and an ongoing effort to develop nuclear weapons.

One general benefit expressed by advocates for a new regime in Iraq is the establishment of a more democratic government and a viable economy in a region bereft of citizen participation and a market economy. Also, it is assumed a more moderate government in Iraq would enhance the effort to achieve a peaceful solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

Sympathy for Israel

American 's position in the Middle East is closely connected to support for Israel. While it clearly complicates the country's relationship with Arab states, support for Israel, especially when threatened, has been bedrock principle since the founding of the Israeli state.

Although a nearly 4 to 1 plurality of Colorado voters have greater sympathy for the Israeli position (42%) in the dispute with Palestinians (12%), a significant percentage of voters either believe both groups deserve sympathy (10%) or neither group deserves sympathy (22%).

Partisanship is a significant factor in differences of opinion concerning sympathy for Israel's position. Surprisingly, in the same July Colorado voter survey, strong Republicans are more sympathetic to Israel than strong Democrats.

. Total Strong
Israelis 42% 34% 58%
Palestinians 12% 14% 9%
Both 10% 10% 6%
Neither 22% 21% 17%
Don’t know 13% 21% 9%
Ciruli Associates, N601, July 18, 2002

It is unusual for Republicans to be so closely aligned with Israel's welfare. While both parties have been defenders of Israel, the Jewish community and its causes have been most associated with Democrats and liberal politics. Now, the most salient Jewish cause is supported most strongly by Republicans. It reflects Republican and conservative solidarity with President Bush, strong support for the war on terror and a special identity with the religious significance of Israel.

Bush critics say sympathy for Israel among core Republican constituencies is behind the administration's position that progress on a settlement depends more on the willingness of Palestinian and Arab leaders to stop the suicide bombers and accept compromise than on actions by the Israelis. The Bush team discards the criticism and counters that it was the Palestinian leadership that rejected a reasonable Israeli offer and turned to terror -- a strategy Bush maintains cannot be distinguished from the 9/11 acts against America.

A debate concerning action against the Iraqi regime is in full swing on the editorial pages and talk radio around the country. But as the summer ends, a majority of the American people remain supportive of President Bush's agenda in the campaign against terror. Holding that support will likely require a much more active engagement in the debate by the administration as discussion regarding invasion intensifies.

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