Inside the numbers: Dealing with Iraq

Posted: Apr 08, 2003 12:00 AM

President Bush's iron hand in overthrowing Saddam Hussein is sitting well with most Americans. They prefer his tough-guy methods to the more dovish policies that likely would have come from three Democrats -- his predecessor, his 2000 challenger and his chief critic.

In our recent survey of 1,000 adults, we asked, "As of today, who of the following do you think is the best leader to deal with the situation in Iraq?" Along with Bush, we listed former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and former Vice President Al Gore. Singly or even combined, this hypothetical triumvirate didn't come close to Bush. Fifty-six percent chose Bush, to a combined 37 percent for the other three. Seven percent said they didn't know.

Not surprisingly, former President Clinton fared best among Democrats.

A respectable 22 percent said they would prefer that he navigate the shifting sands of diplomacy and warcraft surrounding Iraq. Among Democratic respondents, Clinton placed ahead of Bush. Doubtless many recall that Clinton bucked his detractors' peacenik label by launching U.S. aerial military attacks in Europe in 1994 and 1999. Many believe those bombing missions helped check the expansionist and even genocidal policies of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Of course Clinton also ordered attacks on scattered targets around the globe that were believed to house or train terrorists. When one turned out allegedly to be an aspirin factory, Clinton critics had a field day. Either way, most Americans don't view Bill Clinton as having the boldness to invade the Middle East.

That said, it comes as little surprise that far fewer would hand the keys of American diplomacy to Jimmy Carter. The recent Noble Prize-winner and human rights advocate continues to say the U.S.-led coalition isn't justified in its forced ouster of Hussein. But Americans in large numbers reject Carter's cautionary read on the situation. Only 11 percent of poll respondents chose him. With national approval of the war at around 70 percent in most surveys, Carter's position appears as dated as his presidency a generation ago.

As an aside, however, I highly recommend to readers a book published in the early 1980s by former Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.  Crisis describes the Carter administration's handling of the Iranian hostage standoff. It's a hidden gem in a tall stack of books penned by ex-White House staffers. It explains why Carter remains wedded to his diplomacy-at-all-costs philosophy. Some might argue that Carter's patience during the Iranian crisis paid off with the freeing of captive Americans (albeit right after Ronald Reagan took the presidential Oath of Office). But one has to wonder if a President Jimmy Carter today would even consider a mission similar to the one he ordered in 1980 to rescue the American hostages in Iran.

Given the early discoveries of stored nerve gas, mass graves and torture-chamber meat hooks now being uncovered in Iraq, one also can't help but wonder if even Carter is having second thoughts about his antiwar position.

As for Al Gore -- the man who would be president -- our poll found little enthusiasm for him as a hypothetical architect of war and peace in 2003. Only 4 percent of poll respondents chose Gore. Ironically, he is no dove among Democrats. Gore voted for Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when many of his Democratic colleagues in Congress wouldn't.

Bush's support hinges on the so-far military success of the war. The man flat-out rolled the dice. Had American casualties been high, Iraqi missiles rained on Israel or a terrorist attack hit the States, Americans almost surely would have condemned the president in larger numbers. And that's the point. Bush displayed the determination to put his words into concerted action. Now evidence is starting to mount that Hussein is every bit the tyrant and international menace the United States claims he is.

Sometimes peace is secured with shrewd diplomacy, and sometimes the price is higher. Witness President Harry Truman's decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan in 1945.

For years I have argued that Jimmy Carter was unfairly deprived of the Nobel Peace Prize for his having brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Finally he has that honor. In future years it might be fair to ask if George W. Bush, who took a different road pioneered by Truman, might deserve similar recognition. I think he does.