The Public Turns Against War

In poll after poll, Americans reject policies that might put U.S. troops in harm's way.


Saber rattling doesn't poll well anymore. After a civilian airline was shot down over Ukraine last week, America's hawks stepped up their calls for a more muscular intervention in the country, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling the White House "cowardly" because it hasn't armed the government in Kiev. But a new YouGov survey shows only 15 percent of Americans favoring such aid. Forty-six percent in the poll think Russia was involved in the crash, and only 14 percent believe it wasn't. But that hasn't translated into an enthusiasm for intervention.

That reluctance should not be surprising. When Reason polled Americans about the Ukraine war in April, 58 percent wanted the U.S. to stay out of the conflict altogether. Asked what to do if Russia attempted to invade more of the country, a majority was willing to impose stricter economic sanctions, with 61 percent in favor and 32 percent against. But by essentially the same margin—62 percent to 33 percent—Americans were opposed to sending military aid. They were opposed even more lopsidedly, 76 percent to 20 percent, to sending in U.S. soldiers. That last sentiment seems to have grown even stronger since then: In this week's YouGov survey, only 5 percent of the country endorsed the idea of deploying troops to Ukraine. That's just 1 percentage point more than were willing to tell pollsters last year that the world is controlled by shape-shifting reptile people.

This fits a larger pattern. In 2014, more Americans are skeptical about military action than at any other time in the last half-century. It is not impossible to get a majority to back certain sorts of intervention abroad. But it hasn't been this hard for a long time. 

Late last year, the Pew Research Center released one of its periodic surveys of American attitudes about foreign policy. Fifty-two percent of the country, a record high, endorsed the idea that "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Only 38 percent disagreed. This marked a striking change: Even in 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon, the people who disagreed with the statement narrowly outnumbered the ones who agreed with it. And Pew's results are not out of step with the data in other surveys. When Politico published a poll of likely voters in battleground races this week, for example, 67 percent said that American military actions "should be limited to direct threats to our national security."

How has this disenchantment manifested itself in specific conflicts? In 2013, strong public opposition helped keep Washington out of Syria's civil war. In 2014, for the first time in the 12 years that Gallup has been asking the question, a plurality of Americans said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan after 9/11. In that case the margin was very narrow—49 percent to 48 percent—but when it comes to Iraq the numbers are overwhelming. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released last month, three quarters of the country regret the Iraq war. Even the troops are inclined to agree: In a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey released this spring, half the veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars said the invasion of Iraq wasn't worth it. Only 44 percent said it was.

That doesn't mean Americans have embraced an across-the-board anti-war position, even in Iraq. While there's no enthusiasm for sending combat troops back to Baghdad, that Times/CBS survey showed 51 percent of the country supporting President Barack Obama's decision to send in military advisors—a sign that it's possible to sell an intervention if you can convince people it's limited. (When he announced his plan, Obama insisted that the advisors were not being sent into combat.) And 56 percent supported the use of unmanned drones in Iraq. "I understand he wants to fight terrorism," one participant in the poll said, "but send in robots, drones. Don't send in our troops. Our men and women are dying for what?"

Those drones are one of two weak spots in the shift toward anti-interventionism. Last year Gallup reported that 65 percent of the country supports drone strikes against suspected terrorists in foreign countries, at least as long as the targets are not U.S. citizens. That love affair has dimmed a bit since then: In a Pew poll earlier this year, the percentage of the public that favors drone warfare was a much lower 52 percent. Still, only 41 percent were opposed. Most Americans don't seem to be bothered by military interventions that do not put troops in harm's way, especially if they perceive the strikes as acts of self-defense. That's one reason why Washington's critics of the drone war, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have stressed situations, both real and hypothetical, in which the weapons are used against Americans.

The other exception to the trend? While foreign aid in general is unpopular, Americans are more likely to support than to oppose the substantial assistance the U.S. gives to Israel. A CNN survey conducted over the weekend showed 64 percent of the country believing Israel's aid should be either increased or kept the same—the same figure the network found three years ago, now with slightly more people in the "increase" column. (Israel is especially popular in the Republican Party, which goes a long way toward explaining why Sen. Paul has been trimming his sails on the subject of Israeli aid cuts.) Here again, a majority is willing to endorse a foreign entanglement that doesn't put American soldiers' lives on the line.

But that is small comfort for the Ukraine hawks, given how reluctant the public has been to enter Kiev's conflict in any military manner. In that war, Americans don't even want to lose a drone.

NEXT: Bodies from Malaysian Flight Returning Home, Court Temporarily Delays Execution in Arizona, Environmental Groups Want to End Capitalism (Dog Bites Man!): P.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

    1. +1 General George C. Scott

    2. I prefer a quote from another General played by George C:

      “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

      1. “John, the friendly orderly, will come in. He will greet her, talk to her, get her to smile…John, the friendly orderly, will make her happy because he’s the only one who can. And when John feels she has reached the moment of her greatest happiness, he will strike her across the bridge of the nose, breaking it explosively and sending bone fragments into her brain. It’ll be quick. And he’ll be looking at her face at the time. He will know her power. And when he dies, which I hope is very soon, perhaps he can take that power with him…into the other world.”

      2. I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens.

    3. Then why did the majority vote for Obama?

    4. Will not tolerate a loser? Huh. I see the elected or appointed to nearly every public service position.

    5. I Like this quote I dislike this quote
      “Give me an army of West Point graduates and I’ll win a battle. Give me a handful of Texas Aggies, and I’ll win the war.”
      General George S. Patton quotes (American General in World War I and II, 1885-1945)

      Similar Quotes.

  2. Sometimes man you jsut have to deal with it the right way.

    1. jsut? You don’t have spell check?

      1. It’s the Bot’s trademark.

        1. Jack Frapp is jsut not gonna like that one bit LOL

  3. Sucks for Ukraine, and I’m damned sympathetic to a country fighting a tyranny as ghastly as the one imposed by Russia over the last century, but there’s nothing worthwhile we can do about it that would also benefit us in anything close to proportion to the costs, AFAICT.

    1. This. Or as anonbot would say, tihs.

    2. What costs are you referring to ?

      Monetary I suppose to assume. If so, I agree with what you said, there is nothing worthwhile we can do.

      I would like to ask, are those the only costs we should consider ?

      1. Our monetary costs are already high enough. Feel free to add in the costs in bad press, loss of good will, and lost American and foreign lives, and intervention becomes an even worse idea.

  4. The public hasn’t turned against war. The public loves war. They just hate wars that don’t end and that we don’t win.

    1. The war against Islam will never end but I guess even when it has come to our shores, we still won’t face up to it and so it will be the ultimate world wide winner.

    2. If the public has learned anything over the past 15 years regarding war, there is no such thing as a “fast and cheap” war. Or a war that would “pay for itself”.

      1. Yeah, Bullshit.

        I missed the Vietnam draft by one year. I saw the older guys come home all fucked up. In those days they would be laying in a rice patty exchanging fire with the enemy and a week later they would be ordering a pizza and a picture of beer from me back home.

        This is part of the age group that is now in charge.

        The public hasn’t learned anything over the last 15 ( or 100 years about keeping the Federal Government from war.

  5. Fifty-two percent of the country, a record high, endorsed the idea that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Only 38 percent disagreed.

    How does “The USG should mind its own business domestically and let its citizens get along the best they can on their own” poll? I am guessing not so well (my bias), but I will defer to the data.

    1. I’m sure it polls very well. Everyone loves freedom for themselves.

      Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws ? always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop. Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them for their own good.

  6. It took Americans a little longer than Western Europeans to become indoctrinated into the idea that wars can be prevented if only all cultures are incorporated into society and big government becomes the babysitter, provider, rewarder, punisher, and arbiter of disagreements. Also, the idea that a society can survive and prosper even though freedom is limited (except in matters of sex)and an aristocracy of government bureaucrats, billionaires, self-described experts, corporations, unions, educators, and media moguls are better than individuals in deciding what is good for everyone.

    Giving up freedom for a little security and a lot of sexual promiscuity, greed, and sloth are the new values of Americans who really don’t care that today they are slaves today to the above aristocracy but may care when their suicidal tendencies finally enslave them to an Islamic caliphate.

    1. Giving up freedom for a little security and a lot of sexual promiscuity, greed, and sloth

      Um… freedom vs. sex? That’s not much of a contest…

    2. Can you please stop referring to Western Europe as if it’s just one big government, centrally planned federation? European Union may well be illiberal in it’s myriad restrictions and regulations, but the idea of an open, international Europe is a part of the classical liberal tradition. And also it’s damn sad just how cynical and pessimistic one of the most positive and uplifting political philosophies has become.

      1. …”but the idea of an open, international Europe is a part of the classical liberal tradition”…

        So the intent, rather than the result, is such that we shouldn’t criticize the result?
        If that’s your claim, buzz off.

        1. One minute I think it’s satire and the next I think it’s derp.

          It’s just so ridiculous!!

          ( Eddie Murphy Raw )

        2. Criticize the result all you want, but only for the right reasons. In countries such as mine, where privatization is still a big boogeyman, the European Union presents a real demand for more economic freedom. A country which has just elected a left majority into the Assembly (the socialist party got 5.47%). Hopefully, EU’s demands will help continue the privatization effort. I do understand that good intentions are not a sufficient argument for anything. So, while the EU does make many unnecessary rules (which admittedly will have to go away) it also lead to greater fiscal responsibility, open borders and economic growth of many of their member states.

          1. Fiscal responsibility, open borders, and economic growth are certainly nice, and they can be a product of liberalism, but many forms of government manage to produce those outcomes, at least in the short term.

            The EU may well have brought more liberalism to your country (Hungary?) than it previously had, but that is a small relative improvement. In any reasonable sense, liberalism is essentially dead in Europe.

            In Germany, the last liberal party has been kicked out of parliament (and it wasn’t even very liberal), while the former communists have close to 10% of the vote.

      2. Liberalism in Europe is dead. In fact, there hasn’t really been a “classical liberal tradition” in continental Europe. European intellectuals have paid lip service to liberalism but European governments have never realized it.

        In addition, for practical purposes, the EU is “just one big government”: the majority of laws “passed” by member governments are just implementations of EU directives.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.