Even after the administration's aggressive case for going to war soon in Iraq, a majority of Americans favor giving United Nations weapons inspectors more time to complete their work so that any military operation wins the support of the Security Council, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll shows.
The public supports a war to remove Saddam Hussein. But Americans are split over whether the Bush administration and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have made a convincing case for going to war right now, even though much of the public is inclined to believe that Iraq and Al Qaeda are connected in terrorism.
The poll found that while the economy still commands the greatest concern among Americans, the prospect of combat in Iraq, fear of terrorism and the North Korean nuclear standoff are stirring additional anxieties.
These worries may be taking a toll on Mr. Bush's support. His overall job approval rating is down to 54 percent from 64 percent just a month ago, the lowest level since the summer before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Three-quarters of Americans see war as inevitable, and two-thirds approve of war as an option. But many people continue to be deeply ambivalent about war if faced with the prospect of high casualties or a lengthy occupation of Iraq that further damages the American economy. Twenty-nine percent of respondents in the poll, which was conducted Monday through Wednesday, disapprove of taking military action against Iraq.
With major decisions of war and peace still pending, 59 percent of Americans said they believed the president should give the United Nations more time. Sixty-three percent said Washington should not act without the support of its allies, and 56 percent said Mr. Bush should wait for United Nations approval.
As concurrent crises converge on the White House, including a rancorous conflict within the NATO alliance over Iraq war planning, President Bush's job approval ratings have lost ground across the board. Fifty-three percent of Americans disapproved of the way he is handling the economy, and 44 percent disapproved of his overall management of foreign policy.
Though 53 percent of Americans said they approved of the way Mr. Bush is handling Iraq, only 47 percent approved of his foreign policy management over all.
Moreover, a year and a half after the Sept. 11 terrorist assault, only a third of Americans said they think the United States and its allies are winning the antiterror campaign, while 38 percent think that neither side is winning and 20 percent regard the terrorists as still having the upper hand. Only 49 percent of Americans think Mr. Bush has a coherent plan for dealing with terrorism.
If historic trends hold, a decision by Mr. Bush to go to war, even without United Nations backing, is likely to rally the country behind the president. Still, these poll results indicate that the reluctance many Americans feel about the costs of war represent a significant political risk for the Bush administration.
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted with 747 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Americans, overwhelmingly, continue to take the threat of terrorist attacks very seriously, with 80 percent saying that another attack is either "very" or "somewhat" likely within the next few months. And the number of Americans paying closer attention to news media reports about the prospect of war has increased to 71 percent from 43 percent since September.
Still, while there is a high degree of awareness, substantial conflict and confusion exist among the public about Iraq and the antiterror campaign, so much so that 42 percent of those polled said they believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Neither the Bush administration nor any other authority has alleged such involvement.
More than anything, Americans remained concerned about the threat of Qaeda terrorism far more than any threat from Iraq, though concern about the threat from Baghdad has gained some ground.
In January, 59 percent of the public saw Al Qaeda as a greater threat to peace and stability than Iraq. Fifteen percent saw Iraq as the greater threat. In this week's survey, 28 percent saw Iraq as the greater threat, but 51 percent still perceived the Qaeda threat as more serious.
"I think Al Qaeda is a bigger threat because they are in little pockets all over the world," said Nancy Alonso, 66, of Lincoln, R.I. "That is more dangerous than having them in one big place."
Ms. Alonso, a retired nurse, was one of the poll respondents interviewed after the survey was taken. She said she was concerned that the rest of the world might "turn on us" if Mr. Bush failed to pursue his goals with patience and diplomatic skill. "The administration is pushing too quickly for war," she said, adding that the inspectors should get six months to a year to complete their task.
At the same time, poll respondents gave Mr. Bush credit for explaining his administration's position on Iraq than they did six months ago, when 64 percent felt he had not explained his policy.
Those who said they believe the Bush administration has clearly articulated a rationale for attacking Iraq has nearly doubled, to 53 percent from 27 percent in September.
But more information has not translated into greater support for war, which remains at 66 percent. A year ago, a CBS News poll recorded 74 percent in favor of military action against Iraq. The support level for war has held firm at two-thirds of Americans, but this majority breaks down on questions of timing and diplomacy.
"I think if we gave weapons inspectors more time, perhaps countries like France and Germany would change their minds," said Rocky Ostermeyer, 42, who owns a landscaping company in Tucson. "It would help if we were more united," Mr. Ostermeyer added, referring to efforts by Paris and Berlin to extend and strengthen the United Nations inspection process until it is clear that it has no chance of succeeding.
In Appleton, Wis., Ruby Neilson, 74, a retired nursing assistant, said: "I think we should give the weapons inspectors more time because that may help prevent a war. I am very afraid of war."
As to how much time, Mrs. Neilson said she was not in a hurry.
"They should have as much time as it takes, three months at least," she said. After the inspectors have exhausted their search activities, "if they think there are weapons still hid, then they could just say let's get it over with."
The poll was taken five days after Mr. Powell's speech to the United Nations laying out the administration's case for war. Polls taken immediately after Mr. Powell's presentation to the Security Council showed a marked increase, up to 70 percent, in support for military action. But that has decreased in recent days.
It was not clear from the poll just how much Mr. Powell's popularity has influenced public support for the war.
Respondents to the poll showed the same ambivalence about the war and its potential consequences whether they were responding to a question about Mr. Powell's view or the Bush administration's view in general.
It was clear, though, that whether it is the Bush administration or Mr. Powell in particular, the case for war has not been fully made. The public is not convinced that Mr. Bush has tried hard enough to use diplomacy to avoid war. Poll respondents were divided, 45 percent to 48 percent, over whether Mr. Bush has tried hard enough to reach a diplomatic solution or whether he has been too quick to get military forces involved.
Bert Jarvis, 66, a retired Methodist minister from Amarillo, Tex., said a lot would depend on the report on Friday to the Security Council by Hans Blix, the chief weapons inspector.
"I'm from Texas and I understand Bush's mindset: just go get the bad guys," Mr. Jarvis said. But he cautioned that more time was needed. "Probably not past a year," he said, but more time.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company