A new Pew survey on U.S. public opinion and Iran seems to show stronger public support for military action than a poll released earlier this month indicated. When asked whether it was “more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action,” 58% agreed, and 30% said it was “more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran, even if it means that country develops nuclear weapons.” That’s a discouragingly high number for supporting preventive war, but there are a few things about the wording of the question that make this result less significant than it seems.

First, the wording suggests that military action can prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but that is misleading. It is much more likely that military action will do nothing more than delay Iran’s nuclear program and make it even more likely that Iran will decide to build nuclear weapons (which it has not done yet). The alternative being offered is avoiding war even if it means that Iran develops nuclear weapons, but it is not necessarily the case that Iran will build nuclear weapons in the future. Because the wording exaggerates the efficacy of military action and also inflates the risks associated with avoiding war, the result is bound to be skewed in a more pro-war direction.

The more telling result is the general unwillingness on the part of the public to favor U.S. support for Israel’s war with Iran in the event that Israel attacks Iran: 51% favor U.S. neutrality in an Israel-Iran war, and 5% go so far as to favor opposing Israel. Just 39% want the U.S. to support Israel’s attack. Independents and Democrats favor neutrality by a wide margin, and even 34% of Republicans want to keep the U.S. out of the fight. That would be a curious result if the American public were actually as “pro-Israel” in their inclinations as they are often made out to be. It also suggests that public support for military action against Iran is actually much weaker than we see in the first result. One would expect to see much greater support for an Israeli attack if the first result reflected real support for military action.

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