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Public support for war may fade

CHICAGO — The gruesome sight of an American soldier's body being dragged through the streets of Somalia's capital by a mob horrified the nation. Within days, a date was announced for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The terrorist bomb that ripped through a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon and left more than 240 dead, sent shock waves across the country. Within months, America's peacekeeping mission there was over.

Now as the nation braces for possible war with Iraq, questions arise: Will public support waver if casualties are high or fighting drags on? And, do America's adversaries count on a weakening of resolve?

Some experts say Americans have become more determined since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and will stand firm behind military action against Iraq just as they have in the campaign to root out al-Qaida terrorists throughout the world.

"I have no doubt that after Sept. 11, all Americans have the resolve to see this through," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago. "It has convinced them that there are real threats out there, and they need to do something about them."

Not everyone agrees.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, sees no new mood of sacrifice in the post-Sept. 11 climate, noting that military enlistment has not increased since then.

"Putting a flag on your SUV is not a sacrifice," he says. "It's patriotism lite."

Moskos also dismisses public opinion surveys registering healthy support for the war before it starts. "Those polls mean nothing until people die," he says.

He notes that fewer than 550 American military personnel were killed altogether in missions in Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1993), the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), the first Persian Gulf War (1991) and the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan.

"Being a taxi driver is more dangerous than being a member of the military since Vietnam," Moskos says.

Some polls have shown the majority of Americans back a U.S. campaign to topple Saddam Hussein — but would be more comfortable with allied support.

One survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in mid-February showed 66 percent approval of military action against Iraq.

These results suggest the public is willing to hang tough "and pay the costs of a military engagement because of its feeling of vulnerability coupled with its fear and dislike of Saddam," says Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director.

But the poll also found 57 percent of those surveyed want a second U.N. resolution backing an attack.

If U.S. troops invade Iraq without international support and the war doesn't go well, Kohut says, public support could erode. "Some people might say the world wasn't with us and this is why," he says.

The Pew poll also found 55 percent of those questioned worry a great deal about high numbers of U.S. casualties.

Some politicians cite the U.S. government's war on terrorism as proof of American resolve.

In a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., pointed to the recent arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"What we did was to deliver a strong message, 'Yes, we will be here. Yes, we have the resolve,' " said Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Chuck Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, also says the success against the Taliban should quash any concerns about U.S. commitment.

"After Afghanistan . . . it ought to be clear we're pretty serious," he says.

But in a war with Iraq, some experts say even if Saddam's army collapses and his forces succumb, the American public's will could face a serious test in the aftermath of victory.

A terrorist strike on U.S. troops remaining in Iraq as peacekeepers could quickly turn public opinion, says Larry Korb, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

"If Americans wake up and find out that 15 (U.S.) soldiers are killed in a bomb attack on their barracks," he says, "people will say, 'How long is this going to go on? Why are we doing it? Why don't we have any allies?' "

Still, Korb sees basic differences between a U.S. invasion of Iraq and two engagements in which casualties led to swift troop withdrawals: the Beirut peacekeeping mission and the debacle in Somalia in which 18 Americans were killed in a disastrous hunt for a warlord that grew out of a humanitarian aid mission.

"Both were seen as not having direct U.S. interests," Korb says. "We went into both places somewhat reluctantly. We didn't have the big buildup."

Those incidents shouldn't lead U.S. allies or enemies to conclude that America is a paper tiger, says Williams, the political science professor who is a retired Naval Reserve captain and has written extensively about the military.

"That's a huge misreading of the American psyche," Williams says. "Americans will sustain casualties, but they've got to understand why."

But, he says, what may have emboldened U.S. enemies in recent years was the U.S. response to terrorist acts such as the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

"We thought in terms of law enforcement," he says. "We should have been thinking in terms of war."

Retaliatory missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were "not sufficiently robust to have the desired effect," Williams adds. "You hit a few empty tents in Afghanistan. So what?"

The U.S. response to this string of attacks led Osama bin Laden to conclude that "if there were a few more terrorists acts, we would leave the Middle East," says Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mead also says there may even be some vestiges of doubt among allies and adversaries.

"Some governments may overestimate the influence of the peace movement," he says. "What they may forget is how long it took for the peace movement (during Vietnam) to be influential."

And Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that in most international conflicts, the nation's divisions seem to fade when the fighting begins.

"Patriotism in wartime is really part of the American character," he says. "I tend to think we probably have more resolve . . . than most other nations that come to mind. But on the other hand, it's not unlimited. It would be crazy if it were."