by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
support for the U.S. military operation in Iraq has eroded significantly over the past two months, as has confidence in President George W. Bush and his administration's credibility, according to two new polls released here July 1.
Solid majorities of the public now believe that the administration's pre-war evidence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Iraqi links to Al Qaeda amounted either to "stretching the truth" or deliberate falsehoods, according to a detailed survey carried out by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
The same poll found that over half of the public (53 percent) believes that the process of rebuilding Iraq is going either "not very well" (40 percent) or "not at all well" (13 percent), and two-thirds believe the United Nations should now take the lead both on reconstruction and forming a new government in Iraq.
Despite these sentiments, however, 80 percent of the public say they believe Washington has assumed a "responsibility to remain in Iraq as long as necessary until there is a stable government" -- as opposed to withdrawing -- down only slightly from 86 percent in April after U.S. troops established control over Baghdad.
"I don't see anything on the horizon that will make the public want to withdraw," said Stephen Kull, PIPA's director, who added one caveat. "If the perception emerged that Iraqi people wanted us to leave, this could change very quickly."
A second poll published by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup found that 56 percent of the public still considers that Iraq was worth going to war over. But that number represented a sharp decline of 17 percentage points from a high of 73 percent in mid-April.
The same poll found that Bush's overall job rating still stands at a solid 61 percent, though markedly lower than the 71 percent standing he had just six weeks ago.
The most recent poll results are naturally attracting unusual attention both because of growing perceptions in the media that Iraq could become a quagmire for the U.S. military and because the November 2004 presidential campaign is essentially already underway.
While Bush presently holds a commanding lead over any challenger who is running for the Democratic nomination, his father, who emerged from the first Gulf War in the spring of 1991 with approval ratings approaching 90 percent, was handily defeated over economic issues just 18 months later by the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, a relative unknown at a comparable time in the election cycle. The current U.S. economy is hardly robust.
"This bears the seeds of potential problems for the president down the road as he looks to re-election," Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University here, told USA Today.
As far as the benefits accrued by Bush from the war, "I think we're very likely on a downward slope," said Kull. "Between now and the elections, it will probably only erode in value."
The PIPA poll, which was unusually detailed in its questioning, was conducted with a nationwide sample of 1,051 respondents June 18-25, while 1,003 respondents in the Gallup poll were contacted last week.
The latter found that about 53 percent of the public expects that WMD will eventually be found in Iraq, down from 84 percent in the first days of the war. The same percentage said it would matter "a great deal" if they were persuaded that the administration had deliberately misled the public about the weapons.
The PIPA poll found that only 32 percent of the public thought the administration was "being fully truthful" about WMD in Iraq, while 52 percent said that it was "stretching the truth, but not making false statements," and 10 percent said the government was "presenting evidence it knew was false."
In a finding that is likely to put Republican lawmakers on the defensive, 63 percent of the public said Congress should "investigate" the issue. The Republican leadership has so far resisted even using the word "investigation," although they have gone along with Democratic calls for hearings.
Despite the failure of U.S. forces to come up with any evidence of WMD, 23 percent of the public believes that WMD has already been found in Iraq, according to the PIPA survey. Kull said he thought such a notion may be ideologically driven in part, because significantly higher percentages of Republicans believed this, particularly "Republicans following Iraq news closely."
Eighty percent of respondents said they depended more on television and electronic media for their news, and a particularly high proportion of Republican respondents cited Rupert Murdoch- owned Fox TV, which has been especially jingoistic in its war coverage, as their main source.
Similarly, 52 percent of respondents said they believed close links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda have been found; a percentage that rose sharply to 78 percent among "Republicans following Iraq news closely."
On Iraq reconstruction, only one percent described it as going "very well," while 39 percent said "somewhat well." This fact that a majority now sees rebuilding developments as "not very well" or "not at all well" marks a sharp reversal from the situation in early May and also helps explain the strong support for the UN "taking the lead" in both building a new government and in reconstructing Iraq.
Two-thirds of the public continue to support the decision to go to war, although only 46 percent said they though it was "the best thing for the U.S. to do," down slightly from 53 percent in May. Of that 46 percent, about half -- or 23 percent of the whole sample -- said they would still approve of the decision to go to war even if it turned out that Iraq had no WMD at all.
The PIPA poll also found continued strong support for the UN despite the UN's failure to approve of the Iraq war. Asked whether the United States should be willing to take military action to stop a government from conducting large-scale human rights abuses, only 23 percent of the public said it should do so whether or not it had broad international approval, while 52 percent said it should do so, but only with international support.
The poll also found that the public was worried about increasingly negative perceptions about the United States in the rest of the world. Fifty-four percent said they believe that, on average, people in other countries see U.S. foreign policy as negative, while 19 percent said they believed foreign attitudes remained positive. That was a major reversal of perceptions just two months ago, when the comparable figures were 34 percent negative and 43 percent positive.
Almost three in four respondents said they considered negative opinions of the United States abroad to be either a "big problem" or "somewhat of a problem," a view that could also erode popular support for Bush's anti-terrorism policies.
"The public tends to view terrorism as something that requires international cooperation," said Kull.
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