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Is the Public in a “Warmongering Mood”?

Leon Hadar comments on the shift in public opinion on U.S. involvement in foreign wars over the last year:

Indeed, the proverbial Man from Mars who only a year ago would return from a visit to the United States concluding that American people were exhausted of fighting never-ending wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, would clearly be surprised to discover during a more recent excursion to this country that Americans are now in a warmongering mood.

There has been a change between last year’s Syria debate and this year’s war against ISIS, BUT I’m not sure that “a warmongering mood” is what an alien visitor would find. There continues to be majority support for bombing ISIS, but there is just as much opposition to arming foreign rebels or sending American soldiers to fight in Iraq and Syria. If the public were in a “warmongering mood,” we wouldn’t expect an aversion to either of these. Just as it has been possible for the last few years to find polls that show majority support for “no-fly zones” in various parts of the world, it is possible to get a majority of Americans to endorse what they assume to be a largely risk-free, low-cost form of military action. Even so, support for the campaign against ISIS was weaker at the beginning than we have seen at the start of many other military interventions in recent decades, and it almost never happens that support for an intervention increases as time goes by.

There is not much strong resistance to the war right now because the war isn’t costing the U.S. very much yet, and the war may retain the support of a majority of Americans for as long as that’s true. As soon as the war requires a larger U.S. commitment or imposes unforeseen costs on the U.S. military, that is when we’ll begin to see that support dissipate. In the end, the public doesn’t really want the U.S. involved in new wars and tolerates the newest one because a majority believes it to be necessary for the moment. That assessment can and probably will be revised after a few more months of desultory bombing.

There are several other reasons to doubt that current support for the ISIS war means that the public’s attitudes have changed so dramatically over the last year. Most Americans are still averse to involving the U.S. in unnecessary conflicts. The ISIS war receives support because the public wrongly perceives the group to be a “major threat.” More important, most Americans are not interested in getting the U.S. into long and costly conflicts, so the only interventions they are willing to support are those that don’t result in American casualties and that don’t drag on interminably. Overall there is more support for a reduced U.S. role in the world than there is support for more activism, and more Americans still think the U.S. does “too much” rather than “too little” in trying to solve international problems.

Far from signaling a return to support for an aggressive foreign policy overall, backing the war against ISIS is an exception that Americans are making to their general aversion to new conflicts. Hawks would very much like to use the public’s support for this one operation as proof of a broader endorsement of their policy preferences across the board, but it remains the case that most Americans don’t want the sort of costly, ambitious foreign policy that they’re selling. They may not be prepared to endorse foreign policy restraint in every instance, either, but there is still generally more sympathy for restraint than there is for a combative and hard-line foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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