James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Are Americans Embracing Isolationism? Not When It Comes to Air Strikes on ISIS

by James M. Lindsay
August 18, 2014

Iraq Air Strike Public Opinion An F/A-18C Hornet approaches the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf on August 12. (Hamad I Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters)


Last December the Pew Research Center made news with a poll that suggested that a majority of Americans wanted to stay out of world affairs. Today Pew released a poll about U.S. air strikes on Iraq that throws some cold water on the Americans-are-embracing-isoationism storyline.

Pew’s December poll found that 52 percent of the public thinks the United States should mind its own business internationally. That is the highest response recorded for a question that pollsters have been asking for a half century. It’s also about twenty percentage points higher than a decade ago.

Based on those results, most Americans should oppose the renewed U.S. air strikes in Iraq. But instead of finding opposition, the latest Pew poll finds that 54 percent of Americans approve of the air strikes and just 31 percent disapprove. That support is comparable to the support the public showed for the 1999 U.S. air strikes against Serbia in the Kosovo. Just as important, majority support for air strikes in Iraq exists even though 51 percent of Americans worry that the result could lead the United States to “go too far in getting involved in the situation.” That suggests public support would be even higher if Americans were confident about President Obama’s pledge that “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”

Today’s poll also raises doubts about suggestions that isolationist or non-interventionist arguments are resonating with the Republican base. Not only do Republicans back U.S. air strikes by a 71-14 margin, support among self-identified “conservative Republicans” for acting in Iraq is rising. In July, 45 percent of conservative Republicans said the United States has a responsibility to do something about violence in Iraq; this month 68 percent do. Senator Rand Paul’s critics no doubt will note that opinion shift.

As with any single poll, caveats abound. Sampling error, question wording, timing and a slew of other methodological gremlins could distort the reported results. But given the sizable tilt in public opinion in support of the air strikes, it seems safe to say that Americans aren’t quite as eager to turn their back on the rest of the world as many policymakers and pundits seem to think.

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