A Gallup poll released today shows that 60% of Americans support the war against ISIS, which represents a dramatic reversal from early summer when just 39% supported direct U.S. intervention. The report attempts to explain why:
The increase in support is likely also tied to ISIS being perceived as a more direct threat to the U.S., which may not have been as clear in June. In recent weeks, ISIS has captured and beheaded two U.S. journalists. In fact, the current poll finds 50% of Americans describing ISIS as a “critical threat” to U.S. vital interests [bold mine-DL], with an additional 31% saying the group is an “important threat.”
There’s no question that the group is now perceived to be more of a direct threat, but that perception is unfounded. The truth is that ISIS doesn’t pose a direct threat to U.S. security, and if that becomes better understood there likely won’t be nearly as much support for the ongoing war as there is right now. If half of Americans think that ISIS poses a critical threat to our vital interests, that just shows that the respondents don’t understand the meaning of these words. Then again, it’s not surprising that these words would be poorly understood in the context of foreign policy debate nowadays. When manageable threats are grossly exaggerated into something that demands immediate military action, threats are going to be perceived as being much more dangerous than they are. When politicians and pundits routinely assert that American “vital interests” are at stake in virtually every crisis in the world, it shouldn’t surprise us that fewer people can distinguish accurately between truly vital interests and tangential ones.
The fact that only 39% favored military action a few months ago suggests that much of the current level of support for the war is ephemeral and won’t last as the war continues for months and years. That is especially true if the war is perceived as “not working,” and that perception is likely to grow thanks to the unrealistic stated goal of the war. As the Gallup report notes, the 60% figure is relatively lower than polling for most military interventions over the last thirty years, and once the initial “rally round the flag” effect wears off it is probably going to drop back down to significantly lower levels. The public’s underlying aversion to prolonged conflict is still there, and their opposition to sending ground forces into Iraq or Syria remains. Because there appears to be no effort to get Congress to vote on this anytime soon, and because the war is likely to last for several years, declining public support will become a serious political problem for the administration.