Americans support President Bush's initial response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but they also view the prospect of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East with a mix of skepticism, frustration, confusion and outright fear, according to interviews and a national survey by The Washington Post and ABC News.

The Post-ABC poll found that nearly three out of four persons questioned said they approved of Bush's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

But the survey and interviews with citizens in the Washington area and around the country, including a group discussion in a comfortable middle-class section of Syracuse, N.Y., indicate that support for the president was often offered warily.

For many of those questioned, the first instinct was not to "rally round the flag," but to ponder why America had reacquired its thirst for Persian Gulf oil so quickly after the oil shocks of the 1970s, to brood over why more countries haven't leaped to the defense of Saudi Arabia, and to draw edgy analogies to the Cuban missile crisis or the Vietnam War.

"I'm incredibly nervous. I just don't have a good confident feeling about this," said Barbara Humphrey, a planner for the city of Syracuse. The events of the past few days, she said, reminded her of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. "I remember going to sleep that night sure I was going to wake up to the sound of air raids. This has a little bit of that same air of unreality."

Humphrey, the mother of two young children, encapsulated the ambivalence toward the crisis felt by many: "How can you compare a life to the flow of oil?" she asked. "On the other hand, if the flow of oil were to stop, it might cost even more lives down the road."

Her sentiments mirror the nation's anxiety about the uncertain course the president has charted in the Middle East -- a path that six out of 10 persons interviewed in the Post-ABC News survey predicted would lead directly to war with Iraq.

Most of the 769 persons questioned Wednesday said they would support going to war with Iraq to force its army out of Kuwait. But public support is far from overwhelming; four out of 10 said the United States "should not get involved in a land war in the Middle East even if Iraq's invasion means that Iraq permanently controls Kuwait."

The survey also found that a majority opposes an invasion of Iraq. Most of those questioned also opposed a preemptive strike by U.S. forces against Iraqi troops along the Saudi border. And a majority opposed air strikes against military bases within the country.

Those results suggest the "line in the sand" Bush has drawn to warn Iraq to stay on its side of the border also represents how far the public is willing to go in support of military efforts to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

This same mixed message appears to be reaching members of Congress, who so far have strongly supported Bush's actions. Rick Gureghian, a spokesman for the reelection campaign of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), said that Rhode Island voters "want to see some action, but people don't want to see a full-scale conflagration."

Behind the numbers in the national survey are real fears.

Florence Williams, an instructional supervisor at a Syracuse elementary school, said she "tried to keep the fright out of my voice" when her 10-year-old son asked her what was going to happen next. "But I am very worried," she said. "The United States is going into this with one set of values toward human life, but we are dealing with people who don't have the same set of values."

For most Americans, the Iraq crisis could not have happened at a worse time. With the national economy struggling, many now fear that increases in the price of oil could push the country into recession.

The Post-ABC Poll found that 86 percent of those questioned expected the crisis to have a negative impact on the economy, with 39 percent predicting it will have a "major negative impact."

Robey Newsome, 27, a bank employee in New York, said he was concerned that the cost of the crisis would wipe out the savings expected from the relaxation in East-West relations. "The peace dividend is going for war," he said.

In Syracuse, Williams said she believed the problem was partly of our own making. "We deserve what we get. We've known about the {unpredictability of Mideast} oil supplies for the past 17 years. I remember when that happened so well. For a while people bought smaller cars, but then we got lulled right back into a sense of complacency."

In a group discussion in the middle-class Strathmore section of Syracuse, most gave Bush good marks for the way he has handled things so far.

"I voted for Dukakis, but I must give credit to Bush. I do appreciate the fact that in this process, he is using his diplomatic background to join in with other countries and try to get them to take a reasonable approach," said Dennis Killian-Benigno, 39, a special education teacher.

That sentiment was echoed by Mark Campos, 22, a print shop manager in Austin, Tex., who said he had "mixed feelings" about the U.S. response to the crisis but credited the president with "doing as good as he can."

Nationally, 74 percent of those interviewed in the Post-ABC poll said they approved of Bush's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and nearly as many said Bush has been appropriately tough with Iraq.

Nearly seven out of 10 persons questioned said they supported the blockade of Iraqi ports, even if it means U.S. ships "will be in the range of Iraq's missiles." Nearly as many said the United States should keep its military forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf until Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, "even if it means keeping American forces there many months or even years."

"I agree with what he's doing, I really do," said Mike Tickner, 35, an electrician in Syracuse. "I don't think you can be real passive and sit back and let things take their course when you are dealing with a guy like the leader of Iraq. . . . I don't know, I think we are a superpower and we got to use what we have."

There were skeptics, though. "I just wonder why we're always the ones in with the troops," said Leslie Jurkiw, a housewife and mother of three. "If we didn't go, would England or someone else send in the troops?"

"Well, we're the largest consumer of oil," responded Kevin King, 36, a social worker. "We are the greediest and we need the most."

In unison, the group groaned that oil companies were already taking advantage of the crisis by spiking up their gas prices, and none seemed to think that Bush's warnings to them not to engage in price-gouging would have much effect.

Most Americans share their skepticism. The Post-ABC poll found that 87 percent of those questioned said that "oil suppliers are just using the situation to make more money," while 12 percent said that oil companies "probably have good reasons to increase prices." And two out of three doubted that oil companies would honor Bush's request to hold the line on gas and fuel oil prices.

Aside from apprehension, the most persistent strain in the conversations with these Syracuse residents was confusion. Many residents said they had been caught by surprise by the crisis and still didn't quite know the key players.

"Saddam Hussein -- I sort of thought he was a good guy," said Jeff Keck, 41, a high school coach. "The ayatollah was so much of a villain and Iran and Iraq had been at war so I figured {Saddam} was probably a good guy."

Special correspondents Christopher B. Daly in Boston, Laurie Goodstein in New York and Mary Jacoby in Austin contributed to this report. Taylor reported from Syracuse.