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Public Opinion and the War Against ISIS

Kevin Drum overstates the public’s enthusiasm for foreign wars:

It’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Drum isn’t that far wrong about most politicians and most of the press, but I don’t see much evidence that the public is “in love” with war. Yes, there is currently majority support for the administration’s decision to attack ISIS from the air, but there is reason to believe that this support is shallow and likely to evaporate as the war drags on. According to at least one survey, most Americans also consider ISIS to be a “very serious” or “fairly serious” threat to the U.S., and that simply isn’t true. This false belief has inflated public support for action against ISIS, and that is going to wear off over time. Far from being “in love” with war, a better way to think of the public’s reaction is that they have been whipped into a panic about a vastly exaggerated threat by irresponsible fear-mongers. Most Americans support the current intervention because they wrongly think it is necessary for U.S. security, and they have been encouraged in that wrong view by their sorry excuse for political leaders.

The framing of the question about support for the war also makes a significant difference. When the war is described as “air strikes conducted by
the United States and its Western European and Arab allies,” 73% say they support it. When the war is described as if “the U.S. were conducting those air strikes alone,” support drops dramatically to 50% and opposition jumps up to 49%. In other words, the window dressing of allied and client participation causes many Americans to support a policy that they would otherwise oppose if it were being carried out solely by U.S. forces. That tells me that many of the war’s supporters aren’t interested in a new war in which the U.S. bears a disproportionate share of the costs, and whatever support there is for the new war isn’t very deep at all. As it becomes clear that the “broad coalition” organized against ISIS is mostly for show, that support is going to start to disappear. That isn’t the description of a country “in love” with waging war. It suggests that there is a willingness to accept military action so long as the costs are shared by a lot of other countries and the U.S. doesn’t have to do almost all of the work, but that doesn’t describe the current war very well at all.

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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