The lazy media habit of referring to all sorts of countries as U.S. allies has strange effects on the public’s understanding of which countries the U.S. is actually legally obliged to defend. Q20 in this poll (via Drezner) asks, “To the best of your knowledge, with which of the following countries does the United States have a formal treaty that pledges the United States to defend that country?” The results are unfortunate, to say the least. Poor Latvia isn’t on the public’s radar as a NATO ally (just 4.8% recognized that the U.S. is obligated to defend it), Romania is almost as low (7.5%), and Turkey doesn’t do much better (17.3%). Even Germany fares badly (36.6%). Our real treaty allies are mostly ignored, and Israel is incorrectly perceived to be a treaty ally by 55.3%. The prolonged U.S. military presence in the Gulf in general and Kuwait in particular seems to have convinced quite a few Americans that the U.S. has a formal treaty obligation to Kuwait (27.7%).
I can understand why referring to client states as allies would confuse the public into believing that the U.S. has treaty obligations to them, and I suppose Latvia and Romania are new enough as members of NATO that they don’t register as treaty allies. What I don’t entirely understand is how the public doesn’t recognize the states that have been formal allies of the United States for over over half a century. It doesn’t seem to have much effect on overall support for NATO, which 58% want the U.S. to support because America shares “common values and political systems” with the allies. What may be of more interest are the responses to Q24, which asks respondents how strongly they agree with the statement, “The United States can no longer afford to maintain its commitments to defend all of its current allies around the world.” 61.6% strongly or somewhat agree with the statement. Americans may not have a good idea what allies the U.S. is obliged to defend, but most Americans do understand that the U.S. can’t afford all of its commitments around the world.
Unfortunately, according to the responses to Q25, over 60% believe that the U.S. faces greater threats now than it did during the Cold War, which suggests that there are a lot of Americans inclined to believe in the next over-inflated foreign threat. Case in point: Q46 asks how likely the respondents think it is that Iran would attack Israel with a nuclear weapon if it acquired one, and 69% said that they think this is very or somewhat likely (89% of Republicans believe in this absurd Iranian mass suicide scenario). Even more depressing are the responses to Q63, which asks if respondents believe it is true that Iraq had WMDs when the U.S. invaded in 2003. 31.8% of all respondents say that it is true, which includes 62.9% of Republicans. Not surprisingly, that is roughly the same percentage that consistently supported the Iraq war all the way until the end. Perhaps the desire to support the war reinforced this obviously false belief in the existence of Iraqi WMDs, or perhaps it was the other way around. Whatever the explanation, it seems doubtful that Republican supporters of the Iraq war are likely to learn something from the experience if they still believe the false justification for it.