A majority of Americans continue to say they want the United States to assume an active role in global affairs after more than a decade of wars in the Middle East, according to a new survey released this week.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they would back the deployment of U.S. troops to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Large majorities also favored actions that do not typically involve ground troops, such as air strikes or drone strikes against suspected terrorists, as well as sending U.S. forces to prevent genocide or provide humanitarian relief.
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The survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 58 percent of Americans "think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs." That number has remained high throughout 40 years of polling by the Chicago Council, though it has dipped since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than eight in 10 Americans said strong U.S. leadership in world affairs is desirable.
The recent survey pushes back against the narrative that "war-weary" Americans are increasingly inclined to withdraw from the world after years of conflict overseas. Some commentators suggested that a Pew Research Center poll from July 2013—in which 46 percent of Americans said the United States "should mind its own business internationally," the highest in 50 years of polling—provided evidence of a new isolationism among the public.
"It’s clear that Americans are fatigued by a decade of war, but describing them as isolationist is misleading," said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council, in a statement. "They understand that we live in a dangerous world, and that our safety and security will at times require a resort to arms. When that clearly is the case, Americans will support using force."
Still, about 40 percent of the U.S. public said America should "stay out of world affairs"—the highest number in 40 years of Chicago Council surveys. Only small percentages of Americans supported U.S. military intervention in Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion, dispatching troops to the Syrian civil war, or leaving forces in Afghanistan past 2014.
David Adesnik, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who researches isolationism and national security strategy, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the somewhat contradictory results. "The interpretation of polling results is more of an art than a science," he said.
"Right now, the public clearly wants stronger leadership from the White House, as shown in numerous polls," Adesnik said in an email. "This is not the same as saying the public wants the president to use force more often. Americans want peace through strength, which is much easier said than done."
He noted that the Chicago Council survey was conducted in May, weeks before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) seized the key Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In a CNN poll last week, seven in 10 Americans said they believe ISIL could launch an attack on the U.S. homeland. Majorities supported U.S. air strikes against the jihadist group and military aid to forces fighting it, but a majority also opposed inserting U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
The Chicago Council report said that more Republicans (40 percent) endorsed withdrawing from global affairs than Democrats (35 percent) for the first time in its polling. However, Republicans appeared to resume their traditionally more hawkish stance after expressing concerns in a recent Pew poll that U.S. actions against ISIL will not go far enough.
Adesnik said there is scant evidence that a majority of conservatives are adopting the views of more non-interventionist members of the GOP, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).
"Many assume that tea party supporters are more likely to embrace an anti-interventionist or even isolationist point of view, but the data don’t bear this out," he said. "In some surveys, tea party supporters take more hawkish positions than conservatives as a whole. When it comes to foreign policy, tea partiers don’t really line up with Rand Paul."
Majorities of Americans in the Chicago Council survey approved of maintaining U.S. military superiority, keeping a U.S. military presence overseas, and avoiding defense cuts. The U.S. military faces nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts in the next decade unless budget reductions known as sequestration are repealed.
The survey featured a national sample of 2,108 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.