Assessing Threat Levels: Saddam or Bin Laden?

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

It has been nearly two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Osama bin Laden still eludes capture by U.S. forces despite several instances during the war in Afghanistan when his demise seemed imminent. Similarly, the killing of Saddam Hussein's sons last month gave many people hope that Saddam himself would soon be found. Thus far, attempts to locate Saddam have proved unsuccessful as well.

Over the past several months, the relative importance of the war in and subsequent occupation of Iraq versus the war on terrorism has been fiercely debated. Which campaign represents a greater priority to the United States and the rest of the world -- and assuming both are still alive, how big of an ongoing threat are Saddam and bin Laden? Most Americans would agree that the world would be a better place without either of them, but according to a recent Gallup Poll, they would most like to be rid of bin Laden.

Capturing bin Laden More Important to Most Americans

In an Aug. 4-6 poll*, Gallup asked Americans which goal is more important for the United States -- capturing or killing bin Laden or capturing or killing Saddam. Although the situation in Iraq has dominated the headlines for the past several months, the public comes down firmly in favor of bin Laden -- 41% feel capturing or killing him is the most important goal, compared to 29% who favor catching Saddam. Twenty-one percent volunteered that both goals are equally important, and 6% say neither is.

Although a plurality of Americans feel that capturing bin Laden should be the most important goal for the United States right now, opinions vary by respondents' political party. By greater than a 2-to-1 margin, Democrats say capturing or killing bin Laden (47%) is more important than capturing or killing Saddam. Republicans, however, are about evenly divided on which capture is more important -- 39% say capturing or killing bin Laden, and 37% say capturing or killing Saddam. Throughout the past year, Republicans have been much more likely to view Iraq as a threat than Democrats have been, and to support military action against Iraq.

Likelihood of Capturing bin Laden and Saddam

Debate over the importance of the two figures aside, how likely is it that either will ever actually be captured or killed? In general, Americans tend to be at least somewhat confident about both possibilities when asked, although these confidence levels have varied widely. On several occasions in late 2001 and 2002, Gallup asked Americans how likely they thought it was that the United States would capture or kill bin Laden. Gallup has also been asking a similar question about Saddam in the months since the war in Iraq began.

Hopes for catching bin Laden were high during the early months of the Afghan war in November 2001 (78%), but had dropped significantly by September 2002 (59%).

Americans were also quite confident about catching Saddam in late March during the early days of the war in Iraq (70%), but their hopes dropped dramatically by the end of June (48%). In late July, after Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed, hopes for catching Saddam returned to their early war levels (68%).

Bottom Line

On Aug. 5 (during the days that the Aug. 4-6 Gallup Poll was conducted), terrorists carried out a deadly car bombing of a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 10 people and injuring almost 150. It's certainly possible that this event could have influenced people's responses to the question about the importance of capturing bin Laden versus Saddam.

However, the perception that bin Laden is more dangerous to America than Saddam is nothing new. A September 2002 Gallup Poll, taken months before the war with Iraq began, asked Americans who is the greater threat to America -- Saddam or bin Laden. Just as they do now, Americans at that time were much more likely to choose al Qaeda and bin Laden as the greater threat over Iraq and Saddam.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 4-6, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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