By Jodie Allen, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Recent polls reveal a curious contrast between the public's current feelings about America's ongoing war in Afghanistan and the possibility of the nation adding another front to its list of military engagements, this one in Iran.
Though most Americans aren't ready to cut and run, an increasing number are having second thoughts about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. A Pew Research Center November poll finds 56 percent endorsing the initial decision to use force, down 8 percentage points since January. Similarly, a late September Pew poll found support among Americans for keeping troops in Afghanistan until the country is stable stood at 50 percent—a hefty seven-point drop since June. This despite the fact that fully three-in-four Americans see a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan as a major threat to U.S. well-being.
Yet even as enthusiasm for involvement in Afghanistan faded, an October Pew Research survey, found that by a substantial 61 percent to 24 percent margin, Americans said that it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons than to avoid a military conflict with that country. True, the survey also found hefty support for direct negotiations—but most Americans just don't think they'll work. And when faced with the choice between a nuclear-armed Iran and military action, most Americans choose conflict.
The U.S. public's apparent willingness to commence hostilities against Iran, while making for the exit in Afghanistan, may seem puzzling. Nuclear weapons, of course, understandably evoke public fear. But other, more proximate U.S. foes, notably North Korea, have proven nuclear weapons capability, not just the threat of developing it. Moreover, Iran has never launched an attack on the U.S., while the perpetrators of the only massive attack on the American continent in nearly two centuries were harbored in Afghanistan.
Of course, other factors—such as Iran's vast oil reserves, its relative proximity to Israel and its ability to cut off access to the Persian Gulf—may account for this heightened sensitivity. Still, it is interesting to note that the contrast between attitudes toward Afghanistan and Iran fits into a temporal pattern seen in the attitudes of Americans toward other U.S. military deployments in past decades. Americans generally like their wars to be successful or short—and ideally both.
Vietnam is, of course, Exhibit A in the history of American attitudes toward armed conflict in the post-World War II period. In retrospect, a large majority of the U.S. public now thinks that sending U.S. troops to fight Vietnam was a mistake. But that was not the case when Americans first entered the fighting. In August 1965, asked by Gallup whether the decision to send troops to Vietnam was a mistake, fully 60 percent said no, while only 24 percent said yes. As late as January 1967, the public still weighed in on the no-mistake side (32 percent yes, 52 percent no).
A year later, however, as U.S. casualties mounted, the public began to have serious second thoughts with 46 percent calling our involvement a mistake, although 42 percent still didn't think so. By January 1969, views had further soured with the public judging the war a mistake by 52 percent-39 percent, a margin that increased in the following years. That negative assessment not only persisted but increased long after the war concluded: In April 1995, Gallup found 71 percent labeling U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict a mistake.
Attitudes toward the still ongoing conflict in Iraq have followed a similar trajectory. At the time of the U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003, more than 7 in 10 judged the deployment of U.S. forces against Saddam Hussein to be the right decision. Nor did the public grow faint at the first sight of American blood. As late as September 2004, Pew Research polls show more than half (54 percent) still thought the war would not "turn out to be another Vietnam." But declining proportions subsequently took that upbeat view. Starting in February 2005 (with one jump to 51 percent in February 2006), fewer than half of Americans judged the Iraq war to have been the right decision.
Not all U.S. military engagements in Iraq have followed this path. President George H.W. Bush was far more successful than his son in winning hearts and minds in his invasion of that country in 1991. Of course, had the fighting in the Persian Gulf not been brief and the objective well-defined and achievable, public support might well have been short-lived—as were the very high approval ratings that President Bush enjoyed immediately after the successful conclusion of hostilities. But Gulf War glow was fast fading, hastened by the downturn in the economy and the short but bloody outcome of U.S. intervention in Somalia.
As a more detailed look at the trajectory of public opinion in these and other theaters suggests, Americans can be far from faint-hearted when considering armed intervention. But they like their wars to be short or victorious and preferably both. The 8-year old Afghanistan conflict has long missed its chance to garner public approbation by its brevity. Now, its fate in the annals of public opinion will likely depend on the clarity and success of its ultimate outcome.