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What About the War on Terrorism?

by Darren K. Carlson

As America prepares for the looming possibility of war with Iraq and the tension with North Korea increases, it has become easier to lose sight of the fact that the United States and its allies are waging an ongoing war against terrorism. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll*, conducted before the U.S. government raised the terrorism threat level on Feb. 7, gauged public opinion regarding that war effort, and found that though Americans' perceptions of who is winning the war have remained stable since September 2002, satisfaction with the way the war on terrorism is going has deteriorated somewhat.

Further, differences can now be seen along political lines: Americans are more likely to feel that Republicans are too quick to propose military action against terrorism than they are to say the same about Democrats, while the Democrats are more likely to be perceived as too slow to propose that option.

Who's Winning?

Gallup has been asking Americans about which side they think is winning the war on terrorism -- the United States and its allies, the terrorists, or neither side -- since shortly after the Sept. 11. 2001, attacks. The percentage of Americans saying they think the United States and its allies are winning peaked in January 2002, when two-thirds (66%) gave that response. From there, that number decreased steadily, finally settling around its current level of 35%. Forty-four percent of Americans currently believe that neither side is winning, while 16% believe the terrorists are winning.

A Dip in Satisfaction

While the perceptions about who is winning the war on terrorism have remained steady in recent months, public satisfaction with how that war is going has soured somewhat. This question was first asked in September 2002, at which time roughly a quarter of Americans (24%) said they were either "not too satisfied" or "not at all satisfied" with the way things were going for the United States in the war on terrorism. In last week's poll, that percentage increased to 36%.

Quick on the Trigger?

The war on terrorism creates a unique political and public policy debate for U.S. leaders. Despite the high profiles of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, terrorists are much more difficult to target as enemies than are political dictators like Saddam Hussein. The intricacies of counter-terrorist military action against active cells operating covertly in dozens of countries around the world are more complex than an overt strike against one specific nation like Iraq.

However, allied forces are still engaged in military action in Afghanistan (as well as in other countries like the Philippines) to quell terrorism. In the recent poll, Gallup sought to determine what the public thinks about the Republican and Democratic approaches to the use of military action to fight terrorism, by asking Americans whether each of the two major political parties are too quick or two slow to propose such a route.

More Americans believe the Republicans are "too quick" (32%) rather than "too slow" (20%) to propose military action to deal with terrorism. However, a plurality of Americans, 43%, say Republicans are "about right" in this regard. An opposite perception exists regarding the Democrats. The public is nearly four times as likely to think Democrats are "too slow" (51%) rather than "too quick" (13%) to propose the use of military force. Thirty percent of Americans think the Democrats' approach is "about right."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2003. The results here are drawn from questions asked of a random half of the total sample, and the maximum margins of sampling error associated with these questions are ±5%.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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