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U.S. Needs More International Backing

Council on Foreign Relations Commentary

Commentary by Lee Feinstein, Deputy Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Support for War Hinges on Backing from Allies and U.N.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s two-hour briefing from double-spaced notes on loose leaf paper persuaded President Bush to go to the U.N. to support a war against Saddam Hussein, according to the now-famous account by Washington journalist Bob Woodward. But judging from the results of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, the views of the American public may have also played an important part in the president’s decisions last fall and again this month to follow the U.N. track.

Americans continue to back military action against Saddam Hussein, according to the latest poll, conducted immediately before and just after Hans Blix’s equivocal Valentine’s Day report to the Security Council. But Americans also say they remain concerned about the lack of backing from our allies, and almost half oppose military action without allied support.

While two-thirds say they favor “military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s rule,” support for U.S. military action dissipates over concern about the lack of international backing, raising the stakes in the administration’s current effort to marshal support for a second Iraq resolution despite opposition from France, Germany, and others.

About four-in-ten Americans (38%), up from 26% last month, say they would support military action “even if allies won’t join.” The 12% spike follows a month of acrimony between the United States and its traditional NATO allies in “old Europe.” Even with the increased willingness to go it alone, however, about half of those surveyed (48%) either oppose a war or would support one “only if allies agree.”

Americans detected the setback to U.S. goals following last week’s Security Council debate and Hans Blix’s report, which offered little backing for the administration. The number saying the United States now “has enough international support” to use military force against Iraq declined from 41% before the Blix update, to 34% after.

Despite the greater difficulty of getting the U.N. on board, most of those surveyed still indicated they supported the effort to get a second resolution to use force. A majority (57%) believes that the United States “should first get a U.N. resolution” to use force before taking military action.

But while most believe allied support is a prerequisite for American military action, only about a fifth (22%) say the United States should “not use force” in the event of a Security Council veto by one or two countries.

The acrimony in New York and Brussels appears to have raised concerns about the broader relationship with America’s traditional allies. Americans expressed concern about the widening transatlantic rift, at a time when Secretary Powell warned allies against “breaking up NATO.” More than six-in-ten (62%) want the partnership between the United States and Western Europe to “remain as close as it has been,” a remarkable endorsement in light of the cross-Atlantic trade in insults. About the same number (66%), however, think the relationship is “moving apart,” indicating surprising sensitivity to an aspect of foreign policy, alliance management, which rarely rates much public attention at home.

The latest survey results convey a picture of a public that is paying a lot closer attention to international issues (62% say they are following the debate over war very closely and a 42% plurality says they have heard “too little” from war opponents).

It shows continued strong support for ousting Saddam, but concern about the cost to America’s relationships with its trusted partners.

It shows the American people strongly support the president’s decision to go to the U.N. for a second resolution.

Finally, it suggests that the president’s effort to prepare for a possible war with Iraq will be easier abroad — and at home — if he is successful in winning U.N. backing or, at least, the support of our allies.

In a speech at a U.S. university last week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “When there is strong U.S. leadership, exercised through patient diplomatic persuasion and coalition building, the United Nations is successful — and the United States is successful.” That is a sentiment, based on these poll results, that appears pretty close to what most Americans seem to be saying as well.

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