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Polls Show Americans Support Less-Interventionist U.S. Foreign Policy, But with Caveats

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Update:

Since this article went to press, President Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, on Jan. 3. The results of these polls do not reflect these current developments in Iran.


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If there’s one word that will never be used to describe the Trump presidency, it’s “predictable.” Yet in terms of foreign policy, Trump has been relatively consistent, embracing a transactional approach to diplomacy in line with his “America First” governing ethos.

This has meant rebuking allies, embracing autocrats and bucking the international consensus on issues such as climate change, trade and the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most notably, Trumpian foreign policy has been built around disentangling the U.S. from the Middle East and ending what the president calls America’s “ridiculous endless wars.”

Yet even in the foreign policy realm, Trump still manages to surprise everyone, including his own diplomats and generals, as evidenced by his abrupt announcement to pull 1,000 U.S. troops from northeastern Syria who had been protecting Kurdish allies against a Turkish invasion. As expected, the withdrawal paved the way for a Turkish incursion into Kurdish-controlled territory, although a few weeks later, U.S. troops resumed large-scale counterterrorism operations with the Kurds against the Islamic State, leading to more confusion.

While the prevailing narrative is that most Americans support Trump’s global retrenchment — and indeed, surveys consistently show that Americans of all political stripes favor a less-interventionist U.S. foreign policy — the picture is mixed, according to polls conducted by the University of Maryland that surveyed American public opinion on recent events in the Middle East. In fact, on the issue of Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, only 24% of respondents said they supported the move.

At the same time, Americans appear united across party lines on certain issues concerning Afghanistan, with 61% supporting a decreased U.S. military presence in the war-torn nation, including 71% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats. (At the time of the poll, the U.S. had about 13,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, after about 2,000 were quietly withdrawn over the last year.)

Ambiguity on Afghanistan

But Shibley Telhami, a professor in the University of Maryland Department of Government and Politics who is the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, said the results on Afghanistan were “more nuanced than I expected.”

Once the figures were broken down, 34% said the U.S. should maintain current troop levels there, 23% said they should be decreased, 22% wanted all troops out by the end of the year, 18% didn’t know and 3% supported an increase in troops.

a1.polls.trump.hawk.afghanistan.storyAnd when it comes to whether America’s military involvement in Afghanistan has been successful in achieving U.S. strategic objectives, “again, people are all over the place,” Telhami said at an Oct. 22 panel discussion on the polls at the Brookings Institution, where he is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy.

A plurality — 38% — of respondents described America’s involvement as neither successful nor unsuccessful, although more deemed it unsuccessful (33%) than successful (19%).

Those numbers, however, could very well change in light of “The Afghanistan Papers,” a major investigation by The Washington Post that came out nearly two months after Telhami’s poll. The confidential trove of documents obtained by the newspaper after a three-year legal fight “reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” wrote The Post’s Craig Whitlock.

It remains to be seen how the bombshell report will affect Trump’s stated desire to resume peace talks with the Taliban and extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

According to the poll, while far more Republicans than Democrats said the U.S. military intervention was the right choice (49% versus 26%), far more Democrats than Republicans (60% versus 30%) say the U.S. has an obligation toward the Afghan government and people impacted by that intervention.

When it comes to what form this obligation should take, roughly half of respondents (both Democrats and Republicans) agreed the U.S. should use its leverage in peace talks to protect the interests of Afghans. On the flip side, 41% disagreed that the U.S. should negotiate with the Taliban.

“To me, this is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, we have to negotiate with the Taliban. Otherwise how are we ever going to get out?” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings, during the Oct. 22 discussion. “I understand, yes, the Taliban is a loathsome organization, engages in terrorism, has been killing Americans for 18 years. But we negotiated with the Soviet Union, we negotiated with communist China, President Trump is negotiating with North Korea and so were his predecessors. The Taliban is part and parcel of this, and we will have to negotiate with them.”

a1.polls.trump.female.officers.storyRiedel added that the question of whether the mission in Afghanistan was accomplished is also a “no-brainer,” pointing out that the reason U.S. forces went into Afghanistan was to eliminate the threat posed by al-Qaeda, which has since been reduced to a shell of its former self.

“The more complicated problem is the secondary war — the war against the Taliban,” he said. “And that’s far from being resolved, and that’s I think the reason why Americans are so confused frequently about why we’re in Afghanistan and why we continue to need to be there.”

The conflicting opinions on Afghanistan in the University of Maryland poll were in line with another national poll conducted by the Eurasia Group Foundation, which found that 40% of those surveyed want the U.S. to end the Afghan war immediately; roughly 30 percent oppose negotiating with the Taliban and think the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan until all enemies are defeated; while another 30 percent support negotiations and want to stay until a peace deal is reached.

While Democrats and Republicans diverged on certain issues such as whether it was a mistake to send U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2001, Telhami said he was surprised that overall, both parties had similar views on Afghanistan.

Likewise, there was strong bipartisan disapproval of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, effectively abandoning the Kurds who were key in helping to quash the Islamic State in that country. Telhami and his team added the question about Syria at the last minute, asking it at two different intervals several days apart to gauge changing reactions. They found that the more Republicans criticized Trump’s decision, the more respondents reacted negatively to it as well.

Strong Consensus on Iran

But the consensus on sticking it out in Syria was an outlier. Another timely event that took place shortly before the University of Maryland survey — the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September that was widely blamed on Iran — reinforced the notion that the American public has little appetite for war.

Before the oil field attack, 76% of respondents said that U.S. goals vis-à-vis Iran did not warrant U.S. military action; after the attack, 75% said the same thing, with firm majorities among both Democrats and Republicans rejecting the idea of going to war with Iran.

In a follow-up poll, respondents were asked whether they would they support a military response if evidence revealed that Iran was indeed responsible for the attack, and two-thirds said no, including 53% of Republicans.

Interestingly, while the findings seem to indicate support for Trump’s overarching goal of extricating the U.S. from the Middle East, the polls also show that Americans overwhelmingly blame Trump — not Iran — for rising tensions in the Gulf, although on this point there were clear partisan divisions.

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When asked whether they approved or disapproved of the U.S. government’s handling of Iran, 82% of Democrats and 58% of independents said they disapproved, while 76% Republicans voiced strong support for the administration’s Iran policy.

Democrats also overwhelmingly cited Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear accord as the main factor in ratcheting up tensions in the Gulf (51%) versus blaming the nature of Iran’s theocratic regime (14%). Republicans weren’t as critical of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord (20%), although 40% did say that the imposition of new U.S. sanctions on Iran was the most important factor in driving up regional tensions, on par with the percentage of Democrats who blame the sanctions as well.

Likewise, the Eurasia Group Foundation survey found that reviving diplomatic negotiations was the most popular choice to address the resumption of Iran’s nuclear program — more popular than economic sanctions and far more popular than a preventative strike.

“The Iran question shows a majority of Americans think it’s our fault that we’re in this mess today. They’re right,” Reidel said to laughter. “As my colleague Kenneth Pollack used to like to say, ‘If you like the war in Iraq, you’re going to love the war in Iran,’ because Iran is three or four times bigger than Iraq, both in terms of geography and in terms of people. And while they may like American jeans, they don’t like American soldiers and we would be bogged down in a mess. I think the American public has gotten that.”

Reidel also pointed out that Americans have no desire to go to war to defend Saudi Arabia, even though the country is America’s oldest ally in the Middle East.

“Americans have never been that crazy about Saudi Arabia — Sept. 11, of course, plays a big part of that, so does the oil embargo of 1973 — but what we’re seeing in this poll, I think, is that support for Saudi Arabia has really diminished almost completely among Democrats, and among a sizable number of Republicans as well,” he said.

“I think what the numbers on Iran say very clearly to people is that Americans have developed a healthy wariness about starting new wars in the Middle East, for good reason,” Reidel added. “[T]his coming year, the first American volunteers will go to Afghanistan and Iraq who were born after Sept. 11 — that’s pretty striking when you think about it. A whole generation has gone by and now we’re starting to send our youngest off to fight the wars that we started almost 20 years ago.”

Restraint, Not Full-On Retreat

On that note, the Eurasia Group Foundation survey found that the desire for a less aggressive foreign policy cut across generational and party lines. It also extended beyond the Middle East, with more Americans saying the U.S. should decrease (57.6%) rather than increase (42.4%) its military presence in East Asia in response to a rising China.

And in a hypothetical invasion of a Baltic NATO ally by Russia, only half of Americans believe the U.S. should respond militarily. Similarly, nearly half wouldn’t want the U.S. military to intervene to stop humanitarian abuses overseas if Americans are not directly threatened. Notably, the survey found that Democrats were increasingly wary of intervening to help vulnerable populations.

a1.polls.trump.simulation.storyIn terms of the greatest threats facing the U.S. today, respondents were split along party lines, with a plurality of Democrats and independents concerned about “a rise in populist and authoritarian governments,” while Republicans fear America is “losing its national identity due to high levels of immigration.”

But the report cautions that parties and people defy easy categorization. “Democrats are neither pacifists nor liberal interventionists. Republicans are neither militaristic nor isolationist. As much as mainstream media narratives push out stories stoking partisan polarization, the evidence suggests Democrats and Republicans are unified in their reasonable reluctance to bear the high costs and uncertain consequences of trying to reshape the world in America’s image,” wrote Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray of the Eurasia Group Foundation.

They added that while many Americans object to military interventions, they also reject a full-scale retreat from the international stage, buttressed by the belief that a strong military and foreign policy contribute to American safety at home.

The report also points out that “voters’ support for restraint isn’t monolithic” and “is complicated not only by the more expansive views (and inertial policies) of official Washington, but also by the Trump administration’s incoherent and inconsistent approach to global affairs.”

While Trump rode into office on a wave of war fatigue, he has since strayed from his isolationist agenda — for example, defying Congress by vetoing a bill that would have stopped arming Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In addition, the president’s interventionist trade policies, namely the tariff war he launched against China and other countries, have also left people across the political spectrum increasingly pessimistic and frustrated, according to the survey.

“Despite some hope it might curb interventionist excesses, the Trump foreign policy, such as it is, has sown chaos and uncertainty,” the report’s authors argue, adding that, “American voters aren’t as divided as the news media might have you believe. In fact, if you look at public opinion and tune out the noise, the United States may actually be able to forge a foreign policy that not only reflects the preferences of voters, but one that could restore a modicum of order to America’s chaotic foreign policy. The first step is listening closely to the opinions of American voters.”


About the Author

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on January 6, 2020