Americans: Dubious About War But Ready to Fight ISIS—Just Not With Ground Troops

Public opinion, military action, and ISIS.


DC Comics

Was it really as recently as July that I could write a column headlined "The Public Turns Against War"? This week an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has 61 percent of American voters agreeing that military action against ISIS is in the national interest; just 13 percent say it isn't. The same survey shows a sudden growth in the number of Americans who think the U.S. should be more active around the world: It's 27 percent now, compared to 19 percent in April. That comes on the heels of a Pew poll last month where 31 percent of Americans said they think the U.S. does too little to solve the world's problems, sharply up from 17 percent last November. What happened to the anti-interventionist moment?

The short answer is that this isn't as severe a shift as it might initially seem. Both surveys still show more Americans wanting the U.S. to be less active, not more active, around the world. (The margin is 40–27 in the NBC/Journal poll, 39–31 in Pew.) So while the McCain types are more numerous now than they were before the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, they are still clearly outnumbered in the U.S. at large—though not, alas, in the federal government.

Furthermore, even when I wrote my earlier article there were exceptions to the general anti-war mood, which I noted. While the popularity of the drone war was dropping, for example, Americans who favored drone strikes against suspected terrorists abroad still outnumbered Americans who were opposed. People were more willing to risk a robot than to risk a soldier, more willing to kill from the air than to put boots on the ground.

It is thus no surprise that while a majority in the NBC/Journal poll wants to hit ISIS with military force, only 34 percent want to send combat troops into action. Similarly, a recent CNN survey showed 76 percent of the country favoring airstrikes against ISIS but 61 percent opposing ground troops. This is not far from the mood I described in July:

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?"

What lessons should you draw from all this? Here are three:

1. While it's true that the public is more willing to intervene abroad than it was a few months ago, it's important not to forget how much the baseline has changed. Quoting my July column again:

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….

I was going to make a joke about a national-security blanket, but for once he isn't dragging that thing around.
Charles M. Schulz

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.

2. Generally speaking, persuading the public to support an intervention means getting them to believe not just that American lives are at risk, but that war will not put many more American lives at risk. The beheadings have evidently convinced a lot of my countrymen that ISIS is a threat, but not such a threat that they're willing to send in ground troops.

Given what it would take to eradicate ISIS, it's not hard to imagine ways the hawks could overreach here. There certainly isn't anything in the new polls that suggests Americans are eager to engage in another nation-building mission. Public opinion could turn on a dime if the war becomes a quagmire.

3. In the meantime, some politicians who ordinarily oppose foreign intervention have been watching the polls and trimming their sails. And by "some politicians," I mean the Kentucky quasi-libertarian Rand Paul, who evidently has decided to lead from behind this time.

When the presidential primaries get rolling, the ISIS intervention will be something Paul can point to when he wants to persuade Republican voters that he isn't a knee-jerk peacenik—and if he can triangulate by comparing the limited war he wanted to the long slog we got, that might work in his favor too. But this could also be the flip-flop that wrecks his chance to position himself as an early critic of an ill-fated intervention. Barack Obama was able to do something in 2008 that John Kerry could never do in 2004: tell voters he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Rand Paul better hope he didn't just turn himself into the John Kerry of 2016.