The massive recent demonstrations all across the United States against the looming war with Iraq clearly reflects the growing anxiety of the American people over the prospect of early conflict involving U.S. forces. Impartial observers noted that, except for small fringe groups, the demonstrators were peaceful and represented a wide swath of the national demographic—young and old, male and female, black, white and brown, new immigrants and old. New polling numbers reveal that a majority of Americans—a solid 56 percent—think the president should get U.N. approval before launching an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime. And even more worrisome to the White House is the finding that fewer than half of those polled, or 47 percent, said they approved of the president’s overall foreign policy management.

United Nations approval is especially problematic because France, China or Russia might very likely veto such a resolution. In addition, France, a presumed ally, is raising the specter of “neo-imperialism” in referring to what they see as reckless U.S. adventurism. By initially choosing the U.N. route to get to Baghdad, the Bush administration now risks all-important domestic popular support by taking the short cut of a wildcat attack on a sovereign nation.

In a democracy, public support for any war is critical to its success, particularly if things don’t go as expected. They often don’t, because wars by nature are chaotic and unpredictable. The U.S. government and public-flush with recent “cake walks” in Desert Storm, Kosovo, and Afghanistan—have currently forgotten that wars can sometimes drag on, and the losses can be far more bloody than predicted. Unimagined, protracted slaughter in the Civil War and World War I continue to haunt the annals of warfare. Initial public support for the Vietnam War was high during 1965 and 1966, but eroded after the North Vietnamese-inspired Tet Offensive in 1968. Although two-thirds of Americans support war as an option, those numbers plummet if the U.S. incurs high military casualties, inflicts high casualties on Iraqi civilians, or gets bogged down in a long and expensive war with or occupation of Iraq. So public support for an invasion of Iraq is soft, boding ill for the administration if its military adventure does not go according to plan.

And the public should be skeptical of such adventures. Prior to September 11, brush fire wars conducted by presidents had domestic consequences that seemed manageable. For example, the first Bush administration’s invasion of Panama and the Clinton administration’s attack on Somalia and bombing of Serbia had little short-term impact on the average American. But the terrorist strikes of September 11 showed that hatred of America generated by such excursions could have disastrous repercussions here at home. For example, the unneeded U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia motivates al Qaeda to attack U.S. targets. The physical damage and loss of life from those attacks-although horrific-may not be their worst domestic effects.

Historically, civil wars and attacks on nations’ homelands have had greater domestic ill effects than imperial wars overseas. But when overseas adventures result in attacks on a nation’s otherwise invulnerable homeland-especially when an unseen enemy attempts to inflict mass civilian casualties (perhaps with nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapons)—such domestic effects become much more severe. For example, after both the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the attacks on those same buildings in 2001, the fear of terrorist attacks generated laws and executive actions that severely restricted the civil liberties of Americans. In the later case, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act and the administration promised secret military courts and unlimited detentions of U.S. citizens without trial or the provision of a lawyer. Draft legislation from the Justice Department threatens additional draconian measures.

Such oppressive strictures are more at home in the former Soviet Union than in the home of the free and the brave. And what do we trade for constriction of our freedoms? If everything goes well-and that’s a big “if”—a successful invasion of Iraq wins only marginal advantages on the chessboard of the Middle East. The term “national security” has been turned on its head if the U.S. homeland, its citizens and its way of life are endangered so that the foreign policy elite in Washington can protect Israel, grab oil, and avenge Saddam’s transgressions against Bush the father. We must remember that Iraq is a small, poor nation half way around the world—with no demonstrated connection to the September 11 attacks—that, if left alone, would pose little threat to the United States. Saddam could be deterred and contained by the international community-as he had been for more than a decade before September 11.

Such disquieting facts are what underlie the vague anxiety of the American people about an invasion of Iraq that is reflected in polling results. The Bush administration ignores this sleeping giant at its own peril.