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.
Another reason for public support for the Gulf War is the presence of a clear, well-identified enemy, in the person of Saddam Hussein. Two-thirds of Americans say he must be removed from power, a goal that goes beyond that stated aim of Bush and the United Nations. The presence of a bad guy gives a focus to American anger about the brutality of war. That anger could otherwise reflect back upon the president himself.
A third reason for current war support is the widespread (86 percent) acceptance of Bush's promise that it will not devolve into an inconclusive, year-long struggle - in short, another Vietnam.
But public intolerance for a years-long war does not mean that war must end in weeks. Just 10 percent in an ABC/Washington Post poll said they expected the war to last less than a month. Twenty-two percent expected it to last one or two months, and 37 percent said three to six months. The rest expected an even longer war.
Support for war does slide as expectations of its length grow. Support also declines as the expectations of casualties rises. But even among people who expect the war to last a year, nearly two-thirds support it. Only among those who expect the Gulf War to last beyond a year, 10 percent of the public, does a majority oppose it.
Such numbers are suggestive, not conclusive. No poll can predict how the public will react to this war, just as no military analyst can predict just how the fighting will proceed. A rising death toll in a ground war surely will erode support for the conflict. And early public confidence already has faded a bit: At first blush, 50 percent said the war was going better than they had expected for the United States. Now just 28 percent say so.
For the moment, though, this slip in self-assurance has not affected overall support for the war in the Persian Gulf. Americans continue to say they support the fight - even though most believe it will go on for months.