Are Americans Becoming Less Isolationist?

A new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that 54% of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq, while only 31% disapprove. That's a huge turnaround from last year, when a Pew survey reported that a record 52% felt the U.S. should keep out of world affairs. What's going on here?

The latest poll results are also noteworthy, in that a majority supports airstrikes in Iraq even though 51 percent of Americans worry that intervention could lead the United States to "go too far in getting involved in the situation." By contrast, nearly a year ago today, an overwhelming 63% of Americans opposed airstrikes against Syria.

James Lindsay, an expert on foreign policy and public opinion at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues this latest data "throws some cold water on the Americans-are-embracing-isolationism storyline." And, he sees implications for domestic politics as well:

The 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. airstrikes 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 airstrikes, 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.

My own views on this issue? I don't rule out the possibility that Americans are less isolationist than they were a year ago. But, I'm also wary about making broad assessments, given that the dynamics—and perceptions—of each foreign crisis vary so much from one to the other.

Some points to consider:

  • Public support for U.S. military intervention typically surges initially. It's called the "rallying effect." Once U.S. forces are committed, Americans prefer success over failure or retreat. (By contrast, in the case of Syria, U.S. military engagement never made it past the talking stage.)
  • Republicans support airstrikes in Iraq considerably more than they did in Syria. One reason for their opposition last year was dissatisfaction among the Tea Party members of the GOP, who did not believe that intervention was in the interests of the United States.
  • Just a month ago, in July, a solid 55% majority of Americans said that the "U.S. does not have a responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq and takeover of large parts of the country by the Islamic State." Interestingly, that same poll found that Americans tended to link that violence and instability to "religious rivalries" among Muslim groups—in other words, an internecine conflict that we didn't start and couldn't stop. This time around, however, support for intervention was growing within the Tea Party.
  • The latest survey now finds that a majority of Republicans are concerned that the U.S. will not go "far enough to stop Islamic militants."

My takeaway: The American public previously saw the violence in Iraq as yet another protracted internal conflict among rival religious groups. Now, however, the American public, notably Republicans, worry that the Islamic State could actually achieve victory and carve out a militant, anti-U.S. enclave in the region. That tracks with other GOP views: Republicans remain very concerned about the threat of foreign terrorism; and the Tea Party members have a much more alarmist response to Islam than others, according to this survey. Among Republicans and those who lean Republican, nearly three-quarters of Tea Party supporters (72%) say Islam is more likely to encourage violence, and 22% say it is not more likely. By comparison, 48% of non-Tea Party Republicans say Islam encourages violence, while 40% do not.

There could be other contributing factors, of course. For instance, a desire for the U.S. to "demonstrate resolve" at a time when many are concerned about Russian actions in Ukraine. Frustratingly, these polls are not consistent in terms of the questions they ask. The best we can do is try and read the tea leaves that are provided us. I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this latest poll, and whether the U.S. public will become more interventionist in the years ahead.