Unwilling Coalition? Majorities in Britain, Canada Oppose Military Action in Iraq

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

With apparently little time remaining for a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis, new Gallup polling indicates strong opposition in both Britain* and Canada** to military action against Iraq.

Although residents of these two close American allies appear to accept many of America's stated motives for attacking Iraq, that acceptance fails to translate into majority support for military action in either country. Only about a third of Britons (38%) and Canadians (36%) say they currently support U.S. military action against Iraq, while significantly larger proportions oppose it (Great Britain: 58%, Canada: 62%).

Britons and Canadians also express opposition to engaging their own nation's armed forces in an Iraqi campaign. In each country, only 36% favor their own military forces taking part in joint military action against Iraq, while roughly three-fifths are opposed (Great Britain: 60%, Canada: 63%).

British Support for Tony Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the leading non-U.S. advocate of military action against Iraq, and his government has already transferred British troops to the Persian Gulf in the expectation that they will play a major role in any coalition assault. Although Blair led his Labour Party to a resounding nationwide victory in the 2001 election, the latest Gallup Poll of the British public puts his approval rating at just 41%.

There are clear indications that Blair's position on Iraq may be costing him support among British voters. While Britain, like other nations, has suffered economically in the current global downturn, Britons are not overly critical of the prime minister's handling of economic policy (43% approve, 47% disapprove). They are, however, deeply critical of Blair's handling of foreign policy. Fully 60% of Britons interviewed disapprove of the prime minister's handling of foreign affairs, while just 33% approve.

Canadian Approval of Jean Chretien

In contrast to Britain, Canada's relatively modest military forces are not seen as an essential component in any forthcoming coalition strike. Furthermore, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has made clear from the outset his strong preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Chretien's current overall approval rating stands at 45%. Unlike the British, Canadians divide almost equally on both their prime minister's handling of the economy (48% approve, 49% disapprove) and his handling of foreign policy (49%, 47%).

Perceived Motives for American Military Action Against Iraq

Britons and Canadians are split in their perceptions of "the single most important reason" for the possible U.S. military action in Iraq. About a third feel the overriding American objective is the disarming of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (Great Britain: 32%, Canada: 35%), followed by gaining control of Iraqi oil fields (Great Britain: 22%, Canada: 23%), and the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (Great Britain: 18%, Canada: 14%).

Fewer than one in five residents of Britain or Canada see Iraqi support for international terrorist groups as the most important reason the United States is considering military action against Iraq (Great Britain: 11%, Canada: 15%). Even smaller proportions believe President Bush's key motive is a desire to settle "unfinished business" from the first Gulf War (Great Britain: 9%, Canada: 6%).

However, most Britons and Canadians see multiple reasons motivating a prospective American attack on Iraq. Strong majorities of Britons and Canadians see the overthrow of Saddam (90%, 78%), removal of weapons of mass destruction (85%, 78%), and Iraqi support for terrorist groups (77%, 75%) as motivations for American military action. In Britain, majorities also see the desires to establish democracy (54%), gain control of Iraqi oil reserves (52%), and resolve "unfinished business" from the 1991 Gulf War (52%) as factors behind a possible U.S. strike.

Many Britons and Canadians Want Their Own Military Forces Strengthened

It is worth noting that British and Canadian popular opposition to military action in Iraq does not constitute opposition to defense preparedness per se. In fact, sizable proportions of Britons and Canadians believe their armed forces are not as strong as they ought to be.

In Great Britain, 46% describe the current strength of the British military as "about right." However, nearly as many (42%) say British forces are "not strong enough," while only 5% view them as stronger than they need to be. In Canada, where key components of the Canadian Forces have witnessed major reductions in recent decades, 65% of Canadians say they believe Canadian Forces are "not strong enough," while just 3% indicate they are stronger than they need to be.

*These results are based on telephone interviews conducted by the Gallup U.K. poll with approximately 500 respondents, aged 18 and older, from across Great Britain, conducted Jan. 29-Feb. 10, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5%.

**These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of approximately 1,000 Canadian adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 3-9, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%.

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