A Reversal on U.S. Military Intervention

For the past several years, Americans have become increasingly hesitant or resistant to military intervention in foreign conflicts. However, after seeing the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Americans have deviated from previous sentiments. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believe U.S. military action against ISIS should include both air strikes and combat troops, while another 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe any action should be limited to air strikes only. Only 15{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say no military action should be taken (NBC/WSJ poll, September 2014).

So, what changed?

As we have seen from past conflicts, perceptions of national interest or security are key indicators as to whether Americans will support military intervention.  For example, in August 2013, only 21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believed taking military action against the Syrian government was in our national interest, and 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans said no military action should be taken (NBC News, August 2013). This is a far cry from where we are today, as 61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} now say action against ISIS is in our national interest and only a small number of Americans oppose any sort of intervention.

This shift in perceptions of national interest is at least partially due to the recent executions of American journalists, as awareness of the ISIS beheadings of American journalists is a driving factor into how Americans assess the ISIS threat.

For a constituency not always fully engaged in world affairs, fully 94{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans have seen, read, or heard “a lot” or at least “some” about the executions. However, as seen on the chart below, the more Americans have heard about the atrocities committed by the terrorist group, the more likely they are to indicate it is in our national interest to pursue military action.

chart 1

This split is not a result of partisan influences. The party breaks are on par by those who have seen, heard or heard “a lot” about the executions and those less aware.

Chart 2

In fact, awareness of the beheadings has the same impact on perceptions of national interest for both Republicans and Democrats.

chart 3

Further, awareness of the executions influences nearly all other foreign policy measures. The table below shows that those who have seen “a lot” about the beheadings are more likely to support the U.S. taking a more active role in world affairs and also feel less secure.

chart 4

As the U.S. expands airstrikes into Syria, these data indicates that Americans have more of a willingness to be proactive in the fight against ISIS than other world conflicts we have seen in recent years (i.e. Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, Syria/Assad, and Afghanistan). Americans perceive ISIS to be a threat to their national interest/security and the more they are aware of the barbaric acts of aggression against Americans and other Westerners, the more inclined they are to support military intervention.

Public Opinion Strategies