PUBLIC support for the Gulf War carries one well-reported caveat: The fighting must end quickly. The question for George Bush and his military planners is how long they have before popular opinion abandons them. The answer: Perhaps longer than is commonly thought. While unforeseen events can change the picture, support for the war right now appears to have some staying power. That means months, not just weeks.
Expectations of public impatience stem in part from poll findings and in part from the Vietnam experience. As war lags and casualties rise, those sources tell us, support for the war - and for the president - decline.
But the Gulf war has not begun with the divisiveness of a Vietnam. The public was sharply split on that war from the start; as early as June 1965, less than half the public approved of Lyndon Johnson's handling of the war, and approval averaged only 42 percent throughout his presidency. Richard Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War won just 52 percent approval.
George Bush, by contrast, currently holds 81 percent approval for his handling of the Gulf War. Johnson never approached that; Nixon did just once - when he pulled the country out of Vietnam.
One reason for the difference today is that an increasing majority of Americans see the Gulf War as morally justified, an underpinning Vietnam lacked in the eyes of its detractors. Fifty-four percent now say the United States is in the Gulf to preserve the principle that one nation cannot devour another. Less than half as many held that view in August.
Those who say the United States is in the Gulf chiefly to protect access to oil, meanwhile, have fallen to 35 percent, down from 63 percent in August. And even protecting oil is a more concrete war aim than Vietnam offered.