Popular doubts about President George W. Bush’s credibility and his justification for going to war in Iraq are on the rise, according to a new survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
The survey of a random sample of more than 1,000 voters, which echoes the results of other recent national polls, found that 55 percent of respondents believed the administration went to war on the basis of incorrect assumptions, particularly the notion that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States or its allies.
And despite subsequent denials by senior administration officials, an overwhelming 87 percent of the public felt that the administration before the war portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat.
While 42 percent believed that the administration did have the evidence to justify such a depiction, a strong majority of 58 percent said that it did not.
This disparity, according to PIPA, which conducted the survey between Oct. 31 and Nov. 10, has translated into major questions about the president’s personal veracity and credibility.
Only 42 percent of those polled said they believed that Bush was "honest and frank," while 56 percent said they had doubts about the things he says.
Moreover, 72 percent (up from 63 percent in July) said that when the administration presented evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) one of its two major prewar reasons for attacking Iraq it was either presenting evidence it knew was false (21 percent) or "stretching the truth" (51 percent), according to the survey.
That represents a sharp rise in public skepticism about the war’s justifications from five months ago.
Last June, 39 percent of respondents said they thought the administration was being truthful in its prewar assertions about the threat posed by Baghdad. That percentage has now fallen to 25 percent.
And the 21 percent who now believe the administration was, in effect, lying in its claims about Iraqi WMD is more than double the 10 percent who told pollsters that five months ago.
These changes are particularly significant for Bush’s reelection prospects, according to PIPA’s director, Stephen Kull, who noted that trust in the credibility of candidates is one of the most reliable indicators of voting behavior in the United States, even higher than party affiliation.
Indeed, those who said they believed the president was being truthful about the prewar situation were 11 times more likely to say they intended to vote for Bush next year than those who expressed doubts.
Kull also told the media that the decline in Bush’s credibility might be the single most important factor in a sharp rise in the number of voters who say the president’s handling of Iraq has made them less likely to vote for him in the November 2004 presidential elections.
As recently as two months ago, a plurality of 35 percent of respondents said Bush’s performance on Iraq would make them more likely to vote for him, as opposed to 31 percent who said it would not affect their vote either way, and 30 percent who said it would make them less likely to back him.
While the same percentage of voters (35 percent) insists his performance in Iraq will still incline them to vote for Bush, 42 percent now say they are less likely to vote for him for that reason.
"For the first time, the president’s handling of Iraq has shifted from a net positive to a net negative for his electoral prospects," said Kull.
While the increasingly violent resistance to the US occupation in Iraq was a factor, he added, the fact that more people believe the administration lied or was "stretching the truth" about the reasons for going to war was the main reason for the rise in the "less likely" category, he added.
Echoing the findings of most prewar polls, which, until immediately before the war, showed that majorities of the public favored giving United Nations arms experts more time and seeking more international support before invading Iraq, the new survey finds that Americans have returned to their prewar views.
A majority of 61 percent said the administration should have taken more time to find out whether Iraq did indeed have WMD, and 59 percent said they should have taken more time to build international support.
This contrasts strongly with opinions during and in the immediate aftermath of the war.
In one Los Angeles Times poll taken Apr. 2-3, for example, two-thirds of respondents said Bush had devoted enough time to international diplomacy and 73 percent said he had given arms inspectors ample time to search for the weapons.
Significantly, most of the public in the latest survey believed that Bush was determined to go to war regardless of the actual evidence.
Sixty-three percent said the president would have attacked even if US intelligence agencies had told him there was no reliable evidence that Iraq possessed or was building WMD or was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda.
Despite all of these findings, only 38 percent of those polled believed that going to war was the wrong thing to do. Forty-two percent said the war was the best thing for the United States and an additional 15 percent said they supported the war in order to support the president, though they were not certain that war was the best option.
Supporting these judgments was the belief that, while Iraq might not have posed an imminent threat on the order depicted by the administration, most of the public still believed it had a WMD program (71 percent) and was providing support to al-Qaeda (67 percent), despite no evidence to support these conclusions.
"The majority’s views about the decision to go to war are nuanced," said Kull. "It believes there were legitimate concerns that prompted the decision, while at the same time it believes the threat was not imminent and the decision was taken precipitously, without proper international support."
(Inter Press Service)