The American Public Contemplates Phase II of the War on Terrorism

Although U.S. forces remain deeply engaged in the hunt for Osama bin Ladin and other mopping up operations in Afghanistan, the Administration has begun to think about carrying the war against terrorism beyond Afghanistan. The U.S. has begun to deploy troops to the Philippines to help Manilla combat al-Qa’eda’s Filipino subsidiary, Abu Sayyaf. Likewise, Washington has begun discussing the possibility of training and support operations in conjunction with the Indonesian and Yemeni governments, and even of going back to Somalia to root out al-Qa’eda terrorists based there. Meanwhile, a campaign is being mounted to press the Administration to make toppling Iraq the next item on its agenda.

The latest poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations reveals that public opinion remains strong for additional actions against terrorism beyond Afghanistan, but the ardor following the September 11th attacks is beginning to cool as additional concerns begin to surface.

Back to Iraq?

The new Pew/CFR polling data indicates that public support for military action against Iraq remains strong (73 percent of those polled favored U.S. military action against Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s rule), but is clearly tempered by other considerations. In particular, if the threat of considerable U.S. casualties is introduced into the equation, the number favoring military action falls to 56 percent.

Perhaps of greatest importance, Americans continue to place cooperation with our allies high on the list of criterion for a military operation against Iraq. Of those who believed that the U.S. should use military force to compel Saddam Hussein to accept UN weapons inspectors, the majority (53 percent) felt that the U.S. should do so only if our major allies agreed to participate in the operation.

These numbers indicate that if the Administration wants to take military action against Iraq it will have some work to do in securing public support for such an operation. The different responses suggest that while the American public is amenable to the idea of striking Iraq in the abstract, when trade-offs are introduced, their zeal declines noticeably. As noted, raising the prospect of significant casualties caused a 17-point slide in support for military operations (which is also well below the 75-80 percent support for military action during the Gulf War despite the threat of similar levels of casualties).

Likewise, as indicated in previous Pew/CFR polls, the American public are somewhat skittish of unilateral action and would much prefer that the U.S. have allies on board if it does take action against Iraq. As the Administration ponders whether to attack Iraq, it will have to consider whether the public will be willing to take heavy casualties in a new war with Iraq and how they would react if many of our allies turned against us as they are threatening to do.

Targets of Opportunity

There is also strong public support for U.S. military action against other states with large al-Qa’eda presences. Almost two-thirds would favor military action against Somalia, 73 percent against Sudan, and 69 percent support the provision of military assistance to the Philippines and Indonesia. These numbers suggest that the public does believe that the war on terrorism needs to be carried beyond Afghanistan. Indeed, it suggests that for the public, victory in the war on terrorism will have to include the eradication, or at least neutralization, of the entire al-Qa’eda terrorist network and not merely its assets in Afghanistan.

However, what these numbers do not yet reveal is how willing the public is to make sacrifices to achieve these goals. It may be that, as in the case of Iraq above, the public is perfectly willing to use military force in a variety of places as long as the operations are relatively painless both militarily and diplomatically but would be more reticent if there were serious costs attached. Given the limits of the available data, it would be a mistake for the Administration to assume that the public is on board for largescale military operations on a global scope.

Are We Willing to Put our Money Where our Mouths Are?

Indeed, as the responses to the final questions indicate, public sentiment is still unclear about the price the American people are willing to pay for the war on terrorism. The Pew/CFR poll raised eight different tactics to get at the root causes of terrorism-decreasing U.S. oil dependence, encouraging democracy in the Middle East, using military action against those pursuing nuclear weapons, increasing military and economic aid to countries fighting terrorism, purchasing nuclear materials in the former USSR, increasing our own defense spending, and increasing our foreign aid to reduce Middle Eastern poverty. In general, there was strong support for the U.S. adopting all eight approaches. Nevertheless, the degree of support was noticeably more tepid for several categories that would require a major commitment of U.S. resources-economic assistance to Middle East countries to alleviate poverty, and economic and military aid to countries fighting terrorism. More research on this would be helpful, but these initial responses suggest that fears about the economy may be starting to rival the public’s determination to wage the war on terrorism.