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The Bin Laden Factor

by Darren K. Carlson

Is it possible for the United States to fail in its war on terrorism? For some, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., success is contingent on a specific goal that has so far been elusive. "Clearly, we've got to find Mohammed Omar, we've got to find Osama bin Laden, we've got to find other key leaders of the al Qaeda network or we will have failed," Daschle said on Feb. 28.

Daschle took a political risk in bucking the tide of positivity toward the war effort, and garnered sharp criticism from opposition leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). What made him consider the risk worthwhile? The answer may be partly reflected in the way the American public feels about bin Laden, and possibly in the way it feels about another infamous international figure, Saddam Hussein.

To most Americans, bin Laden's death or capture has been and remains a critical U.S. objective. In September 2001, a significant majority of Americans (85%) said that capturing or killing bin Laden should be a "very important" goal for any U.S. military action in Afghanistan, and 10% said it was "somewhat important." By February 2002, the percentage saying it was "very important" had decreased, but was still a solid majority: 68%. Additionally, 20% said bin Laden's death or capture was "somewhat important."

When asked more directly whether bin Laden's capture means success or failure for the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, the public is divided. A survey from March 8-9, 2002, shows 48% of Americans saying the military action would not be a success unless bin Laden is captured, while 47% believe it would be a success even if he is not captured. The percentage claiming the action in Afghanistan would not be a success without his capture has decreased slightly from November, when 55% of the public felt this way.

Bin Laden and Saddam: Comparing Public Opinion

The value placed by the public on capturing bin Laden is comparable to its desire to remove Saddam from power in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. (See "American Opinion: Should Saddam be Worried?") In February 1991, a majority of Americans (62%) believed that the U.S. should continue the military action against Iraq until Saddam was "removed from power or his war making capability is destroyed." Also, a trend dating back to 1992 shows a consistent majority of the public has favored sending American troops back to the Persian Gulf in order to remove Saddam from power in Iraq. The high point for this measure came in November 2001, when 74% favored the idea. More recently, a February 2002 poll shows a majority of Americans (64%) have said removing Saddam from power in Iraq is a very important goal for the current war on terrorism. This is nearly identical to the 68% who thought it was a "very important" goal in September 2001.

Is bin Laden Alive? Can the U.S. Capture Him?

Six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the majority of Americans believe bin Laden is still alive, but they are less optimistic about the ability of the U.S. to capture him than they once were. A February 2002 poll shows that 83% of Americans think bin Laden is still alive, while just 12% think he is dead. A poll conducted March 8-9 shows that 55% believe it is at least somewhat likely that the U.S. will be able to capture or kill bin Laden, while 42% believe it is not too likely. Last December, 76% thought his capture was at least somewhat likely, while 22% said it was not too likely. The most significant change comes in the percentage who say bin Laden's death or capture is "very likely" -- from 43% in December down to just 16% in March.

All polls cited are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, age 18 and older. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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