A Nation Divided on Iraq

Rarely have Americans been so sharply split over a war, and their choice of candidates, along such starkly partisan lines

By Richard S. Dunham

The news from Iraq has been jarring over the last two weeks. American mercenaries lured to their deaths, their bodies mutilated and burned by a cheering Iraqi mob. A radical young Shiite cleric declares war on the occupiers and sends his well-armed militia to battle U.S. troops.

An American civilian contracter has been taken hostage by terrorists, even as Japanese hostages are reported safe but not yet released. A shaky truce has been declared in Fallujah, but a British Foreign Secretary says: "The lid of the pressure cooker has come off."


  Still, when CBS News asked Americans on Apr. 8 if the U.S. did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, 50% said yes, while 46% said the Bush Administration should have stayed out. Indeed, a plurality of Americans have never wavered from supporting the invasion, even as disapproval of the Bush Administration's handling of the post-war occupation has increased.

With nothing but bad news and blood-spattered images coming out of Iraq, why do so many Americans still think it was the correct course of action? In a word: Saddam. No matter how many young U.S. soldiers or American contractors are killed in the invasion's chaotic aftermath, almost every voter will agree that Saddam Hussein is a bad man. Even with the carnage that followed his ouster, most Americans find it hard to imagine that Iraqis are worse off now than they were under the thumb of a tyrant who massacred thousands, tortured countless more, and used chemical and biological weapons against Iraqis without conscience.

That's not to say Americans are willing to pay any price -- in body bags and tax dollars -- to replace Saddam. The same CBS poll found that just 34% of Americans said Bush's invasion of Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs. Americans wish ousting Saddam had been accomplished without these mounting casualties and with minimal cost to the U.S. Treasury. But ridding Iraq of its dictator was still worth it, in the view of many. Overall, however, the country is split on the Iraq. Here are the key reasons why:

Americans are deeply divided along partisan lines. Indeed, this is probably the most polarized electorate ever. An American Research Group poll released on Apr. 9 found that Democrats are nearly unanimous in their support for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry: 92% to 3%, with 2% for Ralph Nader. Republicans are almost as strongly for Bush: 81% to 8%, with 2% for Nader. Those are highly partisan numbers by any historical measure.

The same schism holds true when it comes to almost every campaign issue, from the economy to foreign policy. The CBS poll finds that Republicans think the invasion was the right course of action, 84% to 14%. Democrats overwhelming have the opposite view, 75% to 24%. Independents split right down the middle, with 46% on each side. Thus, the easiest way to figure out someone's position on the war is to ascertain their party loyalty.

Americans' sources of information increasingly seem to reinforce theirr natural biases on the war. People who rely on Fox News as their primary source are far more pro-war than non-Fox watchers. It's no surprise: The top-rated cable news channel is relentlessly hawkish on Iraq, and its mix of information and commentary strengthens the pro-war preconceptions of its viewers.

Likewise, people who listen to National Public Radio tend to be more liberal and more critical of all things Bush. Thus, highly educated liberals hear gloomy and critical reports from the front that validate their deeply held convictions.

Few NPR listeners watch Brit Hume or Sean Hannity in Fox-land. And even fewer Fox fans are willing to consider All Things Considered. Then there's Rush Limbaugh and his merry band of right-wing radio talkers. They regularly question the backbone and patriotism of war foes. Meanwhile, Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo have launched their own talk shows on the new liberal radio network, Air America. Welcome to parallel universes of the U.S. media.

Most Americans want to support their President -- any U.S. President -- in wartime. Commanders-in-Chief are given a lot of slack, even when things start to look bad. It took years for American public opinion to turn against Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, despite escalating casualties and a yawning credibility gap. It wasn't until the Tet Offensive in early 1968 -- after nearly three years of fighting -- that the anti-war movement gained critical mass.

And most Americans stuck with Jimmy Carter for months after U.S. hostages were taken in Tehran. It took nearly a year of nightly broadcasts declaring "America held hostage" before voters finally came to view Carter as weak and ineffective.


  It's too early to tell whether the nation will remain split so sharply down the middle -- or break toward one candidate toward the end of the Presidential election campaign. That's what happened in the 1980 contest -- a very close race until wavering voters swung their support to Ronald Reagan over incumbent Carter in the closing days.

The death of Osama bin Laden and a successful turnover of power to Iraqis could make most Americans view Bush's Middle Eastern militarism more favorably. But a bloody civil war, anarchy, fundamentalist revolution, or massive loss of American life still could turn the tide decisively against Bush. Only the most partisan of Democrats would hope for the worst. But in this 50-50 nation, President Bush shouldn't expect a standing ovation, whatever the ultimate result in Iraq and regardless of how Americans perceive the invasion.

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington-based chief political correspondent. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.