How Islamic State led Americans to a more robust foreign policy

Polls indicate that Americans want a stronger US role in global affairs, which could include, if necessary, US 'boots on the ground' to defeat the Islamic State. Some experts see support for practical, if hard-nosed, diplomacy that can deliver results.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/file
Vice President Joe Biden listens as President Obama delivers a speech about the self-described Islamic State at the White House in February.

After flirting with the idea of stopping the world and getting off – or at least of shutting out the world’s problems and turning inward – Americans in recent months have shifted to favor a more robust United States foreign policy and a tougher stance from President Obama toward international threats.

A string of polls reveals that a growing majority of Americans favor US “boots on the ground” to defeat the Islamic State, if necessary. Indeed, after saying the US was doing “too much” in Iraq and Afghanistan, a majority of Americans now say the US isn’t doing enough to counter threats from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to Russia, polls say.

Yet at the same time, Americans support Mr. Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba and – at least according to one poll – the president’s efforts to reach a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran.

All this taken together suggests that an America increasingly confident about its economic position and gradually putting Iraq and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror wants a stronger US role in global affairs. But it’s not simply a renewed taste for intervention, some experts say. It’s a support for practical, if hard-nosed, diplomacy that can deliver results.

“In response to the cost in blood and treasure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the impact of the financial crisis, there was a period when a majority of Americans were quite reluctant to see the US become involved in the world’s problems,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.

But that trend “bottomed out” at the end of 2013, says Dr. Lieber, who follows dozens of polls gauging US public opinion and foreign policy. “Since then, we’ve seen that as a result of the financial recovery, the return to economic growth, and perhaps most significantly the ravages of America’s adversaries, starting with ISIS, public opinion has shifted noticeably on the desirability of the US playing a more robust role abroad.” 

The evidence of this shift is consistent across a variety of surveys.

A CBS poll last month found that 57 percent of Americans favor sending US troops to fight the Islamic State – a significant jump from the 39 percent who held that view in September. A Quinnipiac poll this month found that 64 percent of Americans favor congressional authorization of the use of military force against the Islamic State – a poll that also found 62 percent of Americans favoring ground troops.

Americans’ growing preference for a more robust US global role also has them increasingly critical of Obama’s cautious approach to foreign policy and his adherence to a limited use of force abroad. Only 36 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s foreign policy, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out this week.

Even more striking is a shift among Americans to thinking that the US is not involved enough in efforts to tackle the world’s problems.

As recently as 2013, a Pew Research Center poll found 17 percent of Americans said the US was doing “too little” to solve the world’s problems. By last August, the number had jumped to 31 percent. The poll also found that, for the first time in Obama’s presidency, a majority – 54 percent – said the president was “not tough enough” on national security.

While those might look like major shifts, some experts caution that it would be a mistake to conclude that Americans are suddenly interventionist again.

“The fact that Americans are even considering US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria is a big step, yes, but I wouldn’t say it means they’ve changed their mind about whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth the cost or that suddenly they’re eager to get the US back out there and involved,” says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Americans respond to situations and events, and they see a terrorist group emerging that is seizing territory, committing gruesome and barbaric acts like beheadings, and slaughtering populations as they advance, and it’s pretty salient stuff.”

For Obama, the result has been a perception that he’s not tough enough.

“Right now, given the events we’re seeing, he’s not perceived as having achieved the right balance” between diplomacy and force, Dr. Kull says.

Others go further, saying Obama’s approach is now perceived to be too weak for the times. “Obama has been conciliatory towards America’s adversaries, and now Americans are concluding that in most cases that approach has not been fruitful,” Georgetown’s Lieber says.

But does that mean Americans have soured on diplomacy? To Kull, polls suggest that Americans want “tough diplomacy.”

For example, a recent Gallup poll shows that a large majority of Americans support Obama’s opening toward Cuba. (Something Lieber calls “small potatoes.”) And a poll published last week by Kull and his colleagues at the University of Maryland found that, when presented with all the options, nearly two-thirds of Americans favored an agreement with Iran that included the key elements of a deal now under discussion.

While Americans may have shifted toward favoring more US involvement, what they really want are solutions and practical results – whether in Cuba or the Middle East, Kull says.

“People found compelling arguments for the major options for dealing with Iran, but in the end they decided the use of force wasn’t going to solve the issue in question,” he adds. “It wasn’t a question of being forceful or diplomatic, but what was going to have the best chance of working.”

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