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Post-Iraq, Do Americans Really Care About the United Nations?

by David W. Moore, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

Several polls in the past couple of weeks have suggested that Americans want the United Nations to play a significant role in Iraq's reconstruction, and in working with the United States internationally. That idea sounds consistent with Americans' positive attitudes about the United Nations over the past several decades, but still it's difficult not to be skeptical about such findings. After all, before the war in Iraq, several polls showed widespread public support for a significant U.N. role, or at least for U.N. approval before going to war. However, when the U.S.-led coalition launched an attack without U.N. support, Americans seemed unconcerned. So, how seriously should we take the current findings showing public sentiment that favors a U.N. role in post-war Iraq?

Before the War With Iraq

In the months leading up to the war, the American public supported U.N. inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, felt an invasion of Iraq should occur only if such weapons were found, and expressed majority opposition to an invasion of Iraq without U.N. approval. Gallup Polls found the following:

  • In a Jan. 23-25 poll, 76% of Americans said the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq were doing a good job, just 17% said a poor job.
  • In a Jan. 10-12 poll, 52% of Americans said the United States should invade Iraq only if the United Nations found evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or programs to develop them. Just 23% said they supported military against Iraq based on the evidence the Bush administration had.
  • In a Feb. 24-26 poll, 38% of Americans approved of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq without a second U.N. resolution authorizing military action, while 40% said the United States should invade only if the United Nations approved, and 19% were opposed to any invasion altogether. This meant that without U.N. approval, a clear majority of Americans, 59%, opposed a war with Iraq. With U.N. approval, only 19% were opposed.
  • In a March 14-15 poll, just days before the war began, Americans were evenly divided over whether to invade Iraq if the United States decided not to offer a second resolution to the United Nations and proceeded with military action without any new U.N. vote. Exactly half (50%) were opposed, while 47% favored invading Iraq under those circumstances.

After the War With Iraq

Despite all these expressions of support for a significant U.N. role in the decision to go to war, a substantial majority of Americans expressed support for the war with Iraq after it started. Yet, the United Nations had found no convincing evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the United Nations did not pass a resolution in support of the invasion, and the United States proceeded with military action without any new U.N. vote. Gallup and other polling organizations found support for the war consistently above the 70% level.

Polls since the end of major fighting in Iraq have once again found Americans expressing support for a significant U.N. role -- this time in the reconstruction of Iraq.

  • An ABC News/Washington Post poll on April 16 found Americans wanting the United Nations, rather than the United States, to take charge of establishing a new government in Iraq, by 55% to 39%.
  • Similarly, a Los Angeles Times poll, conducted April 2-3, found Americans saying the United Nations, rather than the United States, should lead the reconstruction effort in Iraq, by 50% to 29%.
  • In an April 9 poll, Gallup found the American public evenly divided on who should "control Iraq until a new Iraqi government is created" -- 48% wanted the United States in control, 45% the United Nations.

Following the Leader

How seriously should we view these new results indicating substantial public support for the United Nations? A follow-up question by Gallup in the April 9 poll suggests that many Americans may readily express a view about these issues, but will still be ready to accept whatever the president actually decides to do.

Among the respondents who did not opt for U.S. control of Iraq until a new government is established, Gallup asked whether they would support President Bush if he decided that the United States would exercise control. Sixty-two percent of this group said yes, 36% said no. Overall, these results mean that if Bush decides the United States will control Iraq pending the establishment of a new Iraqi government, 80% of Americans would support that action -- despite whatever opinion they may have previously expressed about a U.N. role.

This issue is not an isolated one. On many issues, especially those dealing with foreign policy, Americans may express an opinion but be willing to defer to their elected leaders' decisions. In wartime, we generally refer to that shift in opinion as a "rally effect," Americans rallying behind their government and leaders in time of danger. But during more routine times, there may be issues on which substantial numbers of Americans are willing to defer to their leaders. It's an indication of trust -- not necessarily a bad thing for a representative form of government.


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