WASHINGTON -- Despite a concerted effort by the Bush administration, more than two-thirds of Americans believe the president has failed to make the case that a war with Iraq is justified, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.
The overwhelming majority of respondents -- 90% -- said they do not doubt that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction. But in the absence of new evidence from U.N. inspectors, 72% of respondents, including 60% of Republicans, said the president has not provided enough evidence to justify starting a war with Iraq.
The results underscore the importance of the outcome of U.N. arms inspections underway in Iraq if the Bush administration expects to gain clear public support for an attack.
"I'm not against [war] if it is necessary," said 59-year-old Kramer Smith, a preacher, carpenter and registered Republican from Bloomfield, Iowa, one of a number of respondents who explained their views in follow-up interviews. "But I think we need to be pretty sure before we start pulling in the big guns. If they could put their hands on evidence of real production of weapons of mass destruction, then I would say go ahead and do it."
The poll also found that support for a possible war appears to be weakening, with 58% saying they support a ground attack on Iraq. In an August Times poll, 64% said they would support a ground attack. Last January, after President Bush first denounced Saddam Hussein in his State of the Union address, the Times and other polls found support for military action greater than 70%.
"Still, almost three-quarters of Americans approve of the way George W. Bush is handling the threat of terrorism in the country, and nearly three out of five also approve of his handling of the country's affairs," said Susan Pinkus, who directed The Times poll.
Traditionally, support is low before a president declares war, but increases after troops are in the field.
"If he actually does go to war, I suspect people will swing behind him as they did in the Gulf War," said John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University. "But right now, there isn't all that much enthusiasm for the war."
That lack of support may stem from the impression that the president has failed to present enough hard evidence to prove that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction and is prepared to use them. The administration has spent much of the last three months trying to build a case for war -- internationally at the United Nations, and domestically during the president's frenetic campaigning in advance of midterm elections last month.
"How come they can show satellite photos of nuclear sites in Iran but they can't find the same in Iraq?" asked Nancy Carolan, 52, a jewelry artist on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. "I don't think they're justified, but they are just going to do it anyway."
The poll also indicates that Americans do not agree with the president's argument that any error or omission in the arms declaration Iraq sent to the United Nations earlier this month is adequate to justify war.
Instead, 63% of respondents said war would be justified only if the United Nations finds a pattern of serious violations by Iraq. Just 22% agreed with the administration's position; 6% said it would depend on the nature of the omissions; and 9% said they were not sure or declined to reply.
Almost six in 10 say it is unlikely that the U.N. inspectors will find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
"I don't doubt that they do" have weapons of mass destruction, said respondent Victoria Ellison, 57, a Democrat from Burbank. "But I want to see proof. "
If U.N. inspections fail to turn up evidence of Iraqi weapons programs, almost half of respondents said they would oppose war. Only 41% would favor war, and 10% said they don't know whether they would favor or oppose.
The Times poll also suggests Americans are more informed about the possibility of war with Iraq, with 84% saying they are following the news closely -- up from 76% in August. Sixty-three percent of respondents in the recent poll said they feel war is inevitable, 27% said war may or may not occur, and 4% said they believed war would not occur.
Respondents also expressed concern that the president may not be getting balanced information from his advisors. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they believe Bush's advisors favor going to war; 20% said the advisors present a balanced view; and 11% said the advisors are opposed to war. Roughly a fifth said they are not sure whether Bush's advisors favor or oppose war.
If the United States should launch an attack, 68% of Americans want it to be only with the support of the international community. Only 26% said they were willing to support war if the United States acted alone.
"I am not opposed to doing something, but it would have to be in the right circumstances," said Geoff George, a 20-year-old independent from Albany, Ore. "I would probably be a little more supportive if the U.N. and the rest of the world united and we all decided to do it together. But [if we act] as one nation, I don't think there would ever be enough evidence for me."
However, at least theoretically, Americans agree with the administration's argument that sometimes preemptive or preventive war is justified. Sixty-four percent of respondents, including 49% of Democrats, believe the United States should reserve the right to launch a preemptive attack against regimes that threaten the country. Only 25% said they opposed such a policy, and 11% said they did not have an opinion on the issue.
If the United States does go to war, the decision is likely to have serious ramifications at home and abroad, respondents said. Sixty-seven percent said war is likely to increase the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States; 51% said they feel it would destabilize the Middle East; and 45% said it will have a negative effect on the U.S. economy.
They are also concerned about the possibility of military casualties. Of those who initially said they support a ground attack against Iraq, 18% said they would do so only if no American soldiers are killed. However, support falls off gradually as the theoretical death toll is raised, but 29% said they would support war no matter what the cost in American lives.
Finally, in the wake of a war, the vast majority of Americans -- 70%, according to the poll -- feel the country has an obligation to stay and rebuild Iraq.
The Times poll was conducted Dec. 12 to 15 and interviewed 1,305 adults nationwide. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.