Poll Shows Public Supports Iraq War But Rejects Unilateralism and an Imperial Role for the U.S.

If the unilateralist hawks in the administration of President George W. Bush were hoping that the easier than expected military victory in Iraq would bring the U.S. public closer to their views, they are likely to be very disappointed by the latest public opinion poll. It shows that much of the public appears to be more in tune with the views of “Old Europe”–a moniker applied by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to describe European countries that opposed Washington’s rush to attack Iraq–than with those of the neoconservatives around Rumsfeld.

While three in four U.S. adults say they now believe the war was right, according to the most comprehensive poll to date, strong majorities reject either a more unilateralist or military-oriented role for the United States in the future and continue to see the United Nations as the best mechanism for dealing with international crises. Moreover, almost two-thirds of a random survey of adults agreed with the assertion, “The U.S. plays the role of world policeman more than it should,” and only 12% agreed with the notion that, “The U.S. should continue to be the pre-eminent world leader in solving international problems.”

The survey, carried out Apr. 18-22 with 865 randomly chosen respondents by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, largely echoes the findings of other recent but far less comprehensive polls by the Gallup organization, Newsweek, and other media companies.

“The public’s enthusiasm for the Iraq war appears to be highly compartmentalized,” according to Steven Kull, PIPA’s long-time director. “There is no evidence of a spillover into other areas. Despite the U.S. victory in Iraq,” he said, “public opinion appears to have remained unchanged with regard to the use of military force, the UN, and the role of the U.S. in the world,” Kull told a news conference in Washington, DC.

Most striking appears to be the degree to which the public rejects the kind of international role that neoconservative hawks in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office have proposed for the United States, in which it is not constrained by international mechanisms like the UN Security Council or alliances from taking unilateral action when it deems necessary. When asked to choose among three options to describe the role Washington should play in the world, only 12% favored the pre-eminent world leader position; 76% said “The U.S. should do its share in efforts to solve international problems with other countries;” while 11% said Washington should “withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems.” The percentage favoring the “pre-eminent” role actually fell from 17% since a similar question was asked in a poll taken in June 2002.

Even more unexpected was the response to the question of whether the administration should have tried to get Security Council authorization for taking military action against Iraq, a notion with which administration hawks strongly disagreed. Eighty-eight percent of respondents chose the UN route. “You talk to people in Washington and you wouldn’t expect this at all,” noted I.M. Destler, a foreign policy specialist at the University of Maryland. “It’s such a high percentage, especially when you consider how the UN process has been exposed to so many attacks by the administration and in the media,” he told reporters. Similarly, while 35% of respondents said Washington should feel “more free to use force without UN authorization in the future,” almost two-thirds said the United States should not take away that lesson.

The notion that the Iraq attack was regarded as an exceptional case was bolstered when the survey asked what Washington should do when dealing with other potential U.S. targets that allegedly harbor weapons of mass destruction, the pretext on which the administration justified its invasion. Solid majorities of respondents–from 57% to 67%–said the UN, rather than Washington, should take the lead in dealing with perceived threats from Syria, Iran, and North Korea. “I think what the public is really saying is that ‘we don’t want to do it alone’,” Destler said.

Asked whether the United States “has the right or even the responsibility to overthrow dictatorships,” the rationale favored by the administration since no weapons of mass destruction have been found to date in Iraq, 57% disagreed, while 38% agreed.

The public appears to believe that the war in Iraq will deter Iran and Syria from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. But a large majority–71%–believes Washington should deal with Damascus primarily by “diplomacy and dialogue” rather than “pressuring it with implied threats of military force.” At the same time, however, two out of three respondents rejected the idea of pressuring Middle Eastern governments, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to become more democratic when it was suggested that such an effort might make them less cooperative in fighting terrorism. Some neoconservatives justified the war in Iraq in part by arguing that it would lead to pressure on other Arab countries to democratize.

Majorities of the public also disagree with the hawks who oppose a role for the UN in post-war Iraq apart from humanitarian relief. The public is evenly split on whether Washington or the UN should temporarily govern Iraq and build a new government. A small majority (54%) prefers a UN police force to U.S. military forces as the instrument responsible for maintaining civil order, while 57% believe that the UN, rather than the United States, should direct humanitarian relief and economic reconstruction. Given three options for the role of the U.S. military, 54% said it should remain in Iraq and provide security, but that the UN should lead relief and reconstruction. Only 29% said the military should be in charge of all functions, and 14% said the military should “withdraw completely from Iraq shortly after the war is over.”

Respondents were also asked which of two options more closely reflected their view of overall U.S. responsibility. One quarter agreed with the option that “we shouldn’t spend money on rebuilding Iraq when we have so many problems here at home.” Almost three-quarters, on the other hand, agreed that “it would be unwise and immoral for the U.S. to overthrow the government of Iraq and then just leave.”

Finally, 86% said that Washington has “the responsibility to remain in Iraq as long as necessary until there is a stable government,” with the median estimate of the most likely length of time being two years.