A new Gallup poll suggest that the American public supports the impending war on Iraq, 57% to 38%. So Bush can expect widespread support, right? Well, kinda, but there's a huge caveat there. See, there's a series of other numbers that revolve around the question of whether he gets Congressional and U.N. support for the action or not. If he gets the support from either, his support shoots up: 69% in the case of Congress, and 79% in the case of the U.N. If he doesn't, then it drops: 37% support for the lack of either. There's only 38% support for invasion "if the United States has to invade Iraq alone", either, but that's pretty much a foregone conclusion anyway, and I don't think it'll make that big a deal compared to the first two figures.
So, what does this mean? Well, the question of how these questions connect is pretty important, and I wish they had broken it down further into "U.N. supports and Congress doesn't" (which is unlikely as hell) and "Congress supports and U.N. doesn't" (which is far, far more likely.) What it means in those situations kind of depends on the assumptions made by the subjects... it depends on whether or not they assume that the U.N. is onside when Congress is (or vice versa), and you can't assume that they'll all make the same assumption or that the "yeas" will cancel out the "nays". Still, there's a lot of useful knowledge to be gleaned from this using a Machiavelli-style "either-or" analysis, including figuring out who to watch and what will likely happen.
Either the U.N. supports the invasion, or it does not. If it does, the Congress will likely be onside too, and Bush will enjoy clear public support, congressional support, and U.N. support. Assuming the military side works out ok, it'll be smooth sailing.
If the U.N does not support the invasion, things get trickier. Congress will probably be onside anyway, due to the election and the twin pressures of neo-cons hawks leaning on the Republican candidates to toe the party line and Democratic fears of Republican attack ads. The public will, however, probably be deeply ambivalent if not opposed to the war due to the lack of U.N. (and therefore international) support and their knowing full well that real opposition within Congress is being stifled by these two forces. Bush can't survive this, and he probably won't try, because I'm sure that as much as the military brass are scared of the spectacle of an unpopular war, their fright would be dwarfed by that of Republican partisans. There might be a "rally 'round the flag" effect boosting support at first, but the underlying support won't be there. The public won't necessarily support a war just out of patriotism or fear; communism was just as scary in the 60's as terrorism is now, and the country was still getting over McCarthy at the time. There's the additional problem in that the public is still thinking "war on terrorism" and of retaliation for 9/11, and Iraq is only peripherally attached to either. They might stay onside after that initial boost, but Bush can't count on it, and his staffers should know it.
So, given those two choices, we see that Bush either needs to get the U.N. onside, or to convince the public that the U.N. is unnecessary, that their support doesn't matter, and therefore ensure that the public will still support him if the U.N. goes against the invasion. Either would remove the "U.N. factor" from the public support equation, and makes everything a lot easier. We've seen examples of both, but I don't think either is quite sticking, partially because he (somewhat optimistically) tried to accomplish both at the same time with the U.N. speech and the rolling out of that new multilateral party line from a few weeks ago.
The central thrust of his speech (and the following talking points) was that the U.N.'s relevance was threatened by Iraq's refusal to obey the Security Council's resolutions, and that the U.N. should make those resolutions stick. This worked to accomplish both goals: it was simultaneously a goad to the U.N. to act and a reaching out the U.N. to involve them and, thus, ensure their support; and at the same time it was an insurance policy against the U.N. getting bogged down, because he could then go to the American public and say "look, they're bureaucratic and useless, whereas I'm strong and forceful. I will fix the problem and liberate the Iraqis. Support me". Bingo, both problems solved, which is no doubt why he used that particular strategy in the first place.
Unfortunately, Iraq has managed to frustrate both goals by inviting inspectors in. It frustrates the first because the U.N. sees a U.N. brokered and administered diplomatic solution, which they would prefer. It frustrates the latter because it appears to the public as if going through the U.N. actually works, and that it was the unilateralism of before that was the flawed approach. (To the point that some knee-jerk Bush defenders actually see it as a mere tactic.) Yes, there is that new party line that Saddam can't be trusted and that the letter shows that he's going to limit the available sites (which is actually one damned tortuous spin on said letter), but it can't really be used to support a unilateral strike even if the U.N. does buy into it. It would support a new resolution at best, and that resolution is not going to authorize regime change.. just a new and more intrusive inspection system. It doesn't look like the U.N. is going to go along with it, though.
The new "he's lying" party line isn't helping Bush justify his war to the public, either. After all, the Gallup poll is recent; it shows that even despite the new spin, the U.S. citizenry still wants the U.N. onside. He's not going to top the U.N. speech, so if they aren't convinced now, they aren't going to be. The only way Bush can recover this is if Iraq becomes extraordinarily belligerent and defiant, if it's obvious that Iraq will not allow inspectors in, and if the U.N. either ends up deadlocked or throws up their hands and gives their blessing to the U.S. This is incredibly unlikely, as preemptive strikes and especially "regime change" go against the Charter. The Bush administration knows that.
So what does all this mean? Essentially, that Bush is all dressed up with nowhere to go. It's clear that he's set up for a war in Iraq, and wants to fight it. Bush has staked his credibility on it, the neo-cons have been egging the administration on, the Bush admin knows that it's what is keeping Republicans from falling apart in the face of the still-weak economy and impending housing bubble burst...and the fact that Saddam really is a nasty SOB doesn't hurt, either. I doubt that the Bushistas and their fellow travellers care that much about the U.N., either. If he does invade, however, those polls suggest that the public's initial support will be fundamentally weak. He won't have the support to weather any setbacks or problems that stem from the invasion or (much more importantly) the following occupation. There's no doubt that the Bush administration will care about that- visions of Vietnam and Somalia will dance in their minds.
Still, the status quo cannot stand. Either inspectors have to go in or be in the process of going in (and thereby pretty much postpone invasion for a good while, unless the Bush administration wants to ensure that they look like imperial buffoons by invading despite present or impending inspectors) or the U.S. will have to invade, if only because the neo-conservative right would turn on Bush like a pack of starving jackals if he doesn't, just like they did his father. (I doubt they liked the multilateralist talk much either, which is probably why they're framing it as a tactic instead of a true policy shift.)
Therefore, the organization to watch right now is Hans Blix and UNMOVIC, not the Bush administration. Next Monday, according to the UNMOVIC site, their "concluding talks" will convene in Vienna. Depending on how those talks go, their advance team should arrive in Baghdad on Oct. 15. If all goes well, then Bush can't credibly invade and expect U.N. (and therefore public) support. Those troops in the Middle East get to cool their heels for a good while. But if Iraq stonewalls or otherwise screws around with UNMOVIC, the Bush administration can exploit that. At the very least they can get a new resolution from the U.N., but they could possibly gain the support of the American public despite U.N. intransigence. If that happens, it's war.
That's why I don't expect Iraq to be especially hostile or confrontational for a while. Aziz and the rest of the Baathist regime know perfectly well what's at stake, and Hussein no doubt knows as well. Right now UNMOVIC is their best friend, if not their lifeline. They have to at least act as if absolutely nothing is off the table, because they know that the Bush administration is watching over Blix's shoulder, hungry for even the slightest hint that Iraq will screw around with the inspectors and perfectly willing to spin absolutely anything into "hostile stonewalling by Saddam Hussein". We're living in the prelude to WWI, with Austrio-Hungary ready and waiting to attack Serbia and practically desperate to seize on an excuse, any excuse, to go in with swords drawn and guns blazing.
Come to think of it, the fact that this situation just might turn out differently is proof positive of just how important the U.N. is.