Inside the numbers: Iraq

Posted: Mar 18, 2003 12:00 AM

President Bush is acting forcefully against Iraq in just the political nick of time. And his bold move to go ahead with a war likely will earn him soaring job approval ratings.

The seemingly endless diplomatic two-step around Saddam Hussein not only has plunged previously popular British Prime Minister Tony Blair into a black hole of public disapproval at home, it has been inching Bush lower and lower toward a 50 percent approval rating. Public support in the 40 percentiles would be disastrous for the president. Remember, it was Blair's anemic support in Britain that forced the United States to delay earlier military action against Iraq in favor of yet another "one last effort at diplomacy." A continuing treadmill of inaction could spell doom for Blair and Bush.

This was reflected in our recent poll that showed Bush leading all announced Democratic 2004 presidential challengers with 44 percent against 35 percent. The president polled 48 percent in early February.

But let there be no doubt. Our next survey of the presidential race this month will likely show monumental gains for Bush. And a quick review of some of our other recent surveys will explain why that is the case.

First, let's consider support for the president's position that military action is necessary if Hussein isn't otherwise removed from office. Our survey immediately following the tragic explosion of the Columbia space shuttle demonstrated that even such a national setback did not deter Americans from supporting the president in a war with Iraq. Over 60 percent said they would be behind the president. (The question posed didn't mention the United Nations one way or the other.)

Second came an interesting response to our recent survey asking Americans how they felt about other prominent nations generally considered friends and allies of the United States. Even a month ago, Americans were rating France and Russia among those they least admire. Given the aggressive nature of France's anti-war efforts since that poll was taken, it's probably safe to assume that the intensity of French nationalistic fervor is more than matched by equal ardor for America by Americans. And it's probable that some in the United States who might have been less supportive of Bush are now firmly in his corner because of foreign opposition to him.

What about those Americans who fear that a war with Iraq might result in a drawn-out war, a sort of Vietnam in the sand? Our survey of late January showed that most Americans who had an opinion on the matter expected an Iraqi war to last from at least six months to more than a year. Nevertheless, other recent polls show they are ready to go forward with the fighting.

Collectively, these surveys show that while Bush may have suffered a temporary drop in popularity as he played out the diplomatic game, he still has in place the various check-offs on public sentiment necessary to act authoritatively in the Middle East. The question now is how he will spend his political capital as the coming weeks unfold.

Here at home, he must avoid the appearance of bullying his war supporters on domestic issues. Such a posture could find him back in the fever of post-9-11 cockiness that plagued the White House by the summer of 2002. On the up side, there will be good will awaiting a victorious Bush, allowing his team the opportunity to push through a more meaningful economic stimulus package that can sustain the president and our nation long after Saddam is gone.

Internationally, Bush must decide how to deal with those nations that have been indifferent or obstructionist as the Iraqi crisis has unfolded. It will remain vitally important to maintain quality relations with Russia. That former Cold War enemy now plays a critical role in suppressing and eliminating weapons of mass destruction all over the world, and in helping to replace Middle East oil supplies with its own vast petroleum reserves.

And France? Well, that's a different matter. In an effort to save his own political neck and revive a virtually dead career, French President Jacques Chirac played the "Iraq Card" and created delays that might cost American lives in combat. While the French will remain important in helping fight international terrorism, it's possible their haughty self-centeredness could end up costing more lives than any single terrorist attack.

President Bush will have newfound political strength after the events of the next few weeks. Let's hope he is measured in its use. Perhaps one good move would be to capture Saddam Hussein and provide him political exile in Paris. Bon voyage, desert dictator.