AUSTIN -- On a sun-soaked lawn at the University of Texas's sprawling campus here, three college juniors lounged, cross-legged, between classes the other day, sipping soft drinks on the grass. But the image of carefree undergraduate torpor at one of the nation's largest universities dissolved when the subject turned to the prospect of a new American war in the Persian Gulf.
"It's just a grudge match, unfinished business between Saddam Hussein and [President Bush's] dad," said Blake Chaifetz, 20, an American studies major from Houston whose light-brown dreadlocks spilled from the bandanna on his head.
"I haven't seen the evidence [of Hussein's threat to the United States], if they have any," said Caren Panzer, 20, a journalism major from Houston. "He's committed us to war whether we want it or not."
As the Bush administration presses its case for deposing Hussein and committing U.S. troops to what could be a long stay in the region, many American students seem far from convinced. Protests and rallies -- a hallmark of campus life in previous conflicts -- are still a distant prospect, but anti-war sentiment made up the plurality of opinions expressed in scores of interviews at 10 universities around the country this week.
In this sampling, some undergraduates expressed support, hearty or muted, for a war in Iraq. Others acknowledged that their attentions lay elsewhere, or professed helplessness in the face of what they regard as an inevitable conflict. But the largest number of students interviewed were skeptical, overtly cynical or downright hostile to the administration's determination to oust Hussein.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 U.S. colleges and universities, said students "seem to be apprehensive in a very quiet way. They are not protesting more loudly because they simply do not know what is going to happen." And unlike undergraduate men during the Vietnam War, they are not subject to a military draft.
At several campuses, anti-war organizing and petition drives had begun, apparently unmatched by similar pro-administration efforts. And while the academic year is young, and the odds of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq are uncertain, a number of students' comments suggested that their campuses could contain the seeds of a peace movement.
"You definitely wouldn't see me in a uniform," said J. Patrick Bland, a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans. "I don't care if they call my number or not. This isn't war; this is political posturing."
Bush's arguments that the Iraqi regime poses a threat to the United States and the world have hit home with some students. Eric Israel, a freshman at Tulane, said: "It's a good idea. Saddam Hussein needs to be ousted. He needs to go. Little Bush needs to clean up what Big Bush didn't."
Yet even among some students who were more receptive to Bush's position, there were wincing acknowledgments that a war and its aftermath -- including the possibility of long-term nation-building in Iraq -- could be painful, costly and fraught with risks for the United States.
"My first choice would be a covert operation -- 21 guys go in and take out Saddam Hussein," said Dale Freytag, 19, a sophomore at the University of Texas.
The interviews were conducted earlier this week at Tulane, the University of Texas, Columbia and New York universities in New York, Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University in Washington, the University of Maryland at College Park and St. John's College in Annapolis. In addition, several students at Texas A&M University in College Station were interviewed by telephone.
Few students defended the Iraqi regime or expressed doubts about U.S. military capabilities. Rather, most were skeptical about Bush's motives, doubtful that a war was necessary and worried by the lukewarm or nonexistent support from U.S. allies.
On Tuesday morning, Marie Frisoff was plastering Columbia's stone buildings and sober statues with neon-green posters headlined "Not so sure?" and inviting classmates to a meeting to discuss the potential war on Iraq. "There are a lot of people that just have a lot of questions," said the 21-year-old political science major from Cleveland.
Within yards of Frisoff's green poster trail, James Catrambone, 20, polished off an early lunch and offered his support to Bush. "We should just set a deadline and use force," said the sophomore economics major. Catrambone said he rarely confronts the students who thrust anti-war fliers before him as he heads to class each day. "I get a little annoyed with students on campus protesting for what America stands for."
At New York University, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for a war. "I feel like there's absolutely nothing any of us can do about it," said Sara Schwartz, a 20-year-old sophomore from Philadelphia. "I don't think it's going to help our relations in the Middle East."
In the Washington area, some students said they were preoccupied with sports and studies. But Sean Douty, a freshman architecture major at the University of Maryland, pronounced himself unworried by the Bush administration's designs for Iraq. "If they decide war is necessary and the right thing to do, then I support that," he said.
At Georgetown, several students questioned why President Bush seems to be pressing for war and dismissed arguments that Hussein might be stockpiling or preparing to use weapons of mass destruction. "You can't just start a war because you think something might happen," said Jennifer Rooke, a 20-year-old junior majoring in marketing and international business.
Christopher Trott was equally wary. A 21-year-old senior international economics major who runs the Georgetown Voice, a campus newspaper, Trott said: "I don't think we have clear support from the rest of the world . . . . We'll look like bullies."
At St. John's, the liberal arts college known for its Great Books Program, politics had touched the school only lightly. Yet when a group of sophomores fell into a discussion of Saint Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law and how it related to the overthrow of a head of state, Matt Gates brought the discussion to the real world.
"I feel like Bush is kind of obsessed with this," Gates said. "I question whether preemptive military strikes are legally justified by international law."
At Berkeley, Tulane and Notre Dame, there was little organized opposition to a war, but little enthusiasm for an attack on Iraq.
"We were responding to aggression before," said Jon Kocarnik, a Notre Dame sophomore. "This time, our motives seem unclear."
Lance Wescher, a graduate student in economics at Notre Dame, said most of his fellow students were strongly opposed to a new American war in Iraq. He said he was, too, for the time being, "although I'm not saying I couldn't support it later on."
At the University of California at Berkeley, a focal point of past protest movements, an undergraduate handed out pencils the other day to dramatize the message that international sanctions on Hussein's regime have "denied an entire generation books and even pencils." Several students said they were opposed to a war to topple Hussein but had noticed no great wellspring of protest on campus.
Opinion at Tulane was divided, but those most passionate on the subject of war in Iraq seemed to oppose it. "It's going to completely increase anti-American feeling all over the world," said Adam Morris, a sophomore.
The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, archrivals on the football field, also seemed divided on the subject. At UT, even students at a sign-up table for Young Conservatives of Texas acknowledged that campus opinion is anti-war for now. "The case [for war] still needs to be made," said Austin Kinkhorn, 19, a junior majoring in religious studies.
Steps away from the Young Conservatives, students opposed to the war were collecting petition signatures and planning organizational meetings. Shawn Yanklowitz, 21, a senior communications major, said, "I'm not skeptical about the problems in Iraq, but I am skeptical about turning our back on the international community and going about this so unilaterally and so aggressively," he said.
But at Texas A&M, a conservative campus, few students appeared anxious about or even focused on Iraq. "Most people here are not crying, 'Where's the proof?,' " said John Mathews, 20, a member of the student government who is majoring in business finance.
Contributing to this report were staff writers Nelson Hernandez in Annapolis, Theola Labbé in College Park, Nancy Trejos in Washington, Christine Haughney in New York, Amanda Zamora in Austin and Michael Fletcher in Washington, with correspondents Liz Garone in Berkeley, Adam Nossiter in New Orleans and Mike Schmuhl in South Bend.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company